Today’s Eatosi is all about Al Pacino, meatballs and how Francis Ford Coppola added a scene to make the audience learn something. Stranger things have happened in the film world.
“Come over here kid, you may learn something. You’ll never know when you’ll need to feed twenty guys some day”. Peter Clemenza stared at his friend whilst he began to recite the recipe a loud; “You start out with a little bit of water, then you fry some garlic, then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, then you fry it and make sure it doesn’t stick, then you get it to a boil, then you shove in your sausage and your meatballs; a bit of wine, and a bit of sugar – that’s my trick”.
After the Italian-Americans Civil Rights League failed to get the movie stopped, and the cast assembled contrary to what the studio wanted, The Godfather became one of the highest grossing films in the last fifty years, and yet Pacino’s role in the film was minimal until the Clemenza meatball scene.
The first third of the film was centered on the Vito Corleone family; their activities, the marriage of the daughter and the intra mafia dispute of the New York organised crime scene. After failing to make a deal with Sicilian drug dealer, Virgil Sollozo, Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) was gunned down in a cold blooded attack by the aforementioned drug dealer. Michael, who up to this point played a small role, was thrust into the spotlight, having to take care of business the only way the Corleone family knew how.
The “meatball” scene is widely regarded as the turning point for Pacino’s character. The quiet lamb of the family, Michael had, up to that point, been established as the member of the family least likely to take on the “family business”. However, after the failed assassination attempt, Michael with his brother, Sonny (James Caan), Tom (Robert Duvall) and family friend Clemenza (Richard Castellano) decide to take actions into their own hands and deal with Sallozo in their own unique way, all over a plate of meatballs and pasta. This would lead to Michael becoming central to the family business, and Pacino turning leading man in the duration of the film.
Winner of an academy award, two Tony’s, four golden globes and so on, Al Pacino may have set alight the role of Michael Corleone, and yet, Pacino didn’t want the role. It was widely documented that Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford were the preferred stars for the studio owners; established and guaranteed crowd pullers, when director, Francis Ford Coppola stuck to his decision, Pacino called out the movie maker. “No one wanted me. Except for Coppola who was, I thought, a bit mad. He just wanted me. Even I said, ‘What are you doing Francis? They don’t want me’”.
And yet if it wasn’t thanks to Clemenza and his meatball sauce, known in some parts of Italy as “ragu semplice” then maybe, just maybe, Pacino’s soon to be shining star would have had less impact.
The history of the meatball is shrouded in mystery, but there appears to be two schools of thought. The first, and most commonly accepted version is that it was a dish that was cooked with the remains of meat dishes which were combined along with other ingredients, usually eggs, bread crumbs, herbs, etc. Once all combined with the other products, the result was totally different and the food acquired new tastes and smells, leaving the diners satisfied hearty meal.
The second accepted history instead recognises the meatball with a certain “nobility”. In fact, the word meatball is introduced by Martino de Rossi from Como, an innovative chef who wrote ” Il libro della cucina Coquinaria” in 1450. In this recipe, one of the most important manuscripts of Italian gastronomy of the century, marked by the cook recipes,shows the changes and development from renaissance cuisine to medieval times.
This newly thought of noble dish dates back to the fourteenth century, and uses the school of thought where, instead of leftovers, meatballs were made with noble parts. Martin would note that “at the time, they were more like the rolls on a spit”. The very word “meatball” is said to have originated from “pulp”, which indicated the most soft and tasty veal.
And what about Clemenza and his meatballs? Well, the scene was only introduced in case the movie was a flop. Francis Ford Coppola wanted people to at least learn something if the message of how bad the Mafia actually were didn’t quite cut through.
Michael Corleone would go on to act revenge, spend time in Sicily, take over the family business and run the crime empire of the east coast. Pacino however would go on to star in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather 2 and Scent of a woman. He would win two Oscars for the later films.
Not bad for a man who was introduced to the big screen in a meatball scene.