Just four words long with nary a verb in sight, “Dinner and a movie?” might be one of the most important questions in the English language. Big on promise, short on detail – it’s a pithy invitation that has launched millions, maybe billions, of evenings out.

For many of us, the pairing is so natural, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Perhaps because films and restaurants came of age at around the same time during the first half of the last century, we’ll forever think of them together: fraternal, yet inseparable twins.

Over the past several decades of screening and snacking, we have also grown to love a good crossover. When food and film mix, the combination tickles our brains as well as our stomachs.

Movie theaters and restaurants might be closed for the near-term, but don’t let that stop you. Here are eight excellent food films (all available through cable television or Internet streaming), each paired with a kindred spirit: a takeout or delivery meal from one of the many Portland-area restaurants and food businesses still serving.

Just hit “play” and take the cannoli.

Annabeth Gish, Lili Taylor and Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza. Photo courtesy of IMDb

1.
What to watch: Mystic Pizza
First-time director Donald Petrie must have employed the services of a good psychic when casting this 1988 coming-of-age romance about three servers working at a Connecticut pizzeria. Within just a few years, the movie’s lead actors, Julia Roberts, Lili Taylor, Vincent D’Onofrio (and even bit-player Matt Damon) would be bankable Hollywood stars.

Be on the lookout out for: A literal mess of a scene where Julia Roberts’s character is invited to her blue-blooded boyfriend’s home for lobster.

What to order: Lazzari’s Date Night dinner for two. For $50, you get any bottle of wine, two portions of Grana-Padano-sprinkled mixed-leaf salad, two cannoli (go for the pistachio) and your choice of pizza. My top picks are always the sweet, oniony Amatriciana and the garlicky, sauceless White Clam variety.

Lazzari, lazzariportland.com, 536-0368

2.
What to watch: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
This 2009 animated comedy about a tiny island with a lack of appetizing food choices (apart from sardines) is an allegory about the dangers of technology run amok and the power of self-belief. Full of visual gags and clever writing, it possesses a nuanced, grown-up appeal rarely found in a kids’ movie.

Be on the lookout out for: A spaghetti twister powerful enough to dislodge billboards and upend cars, but not quite enough to disrupt a negging newscaster’s toxic machismo.

What to order:
This one is easy: It would feel almost sacrilegious to eat anything other than spaghetti and meatballs, and Ada’s Portland, a relative newcomer to the Portland dining scene, prepares a fantastic version built on the restaurant’s house-made pasta and perky pomodoro sauce ($19). Grab a bottle of bold Cembra Pinot Nero ($16) or spirit-elevating Flora Prosecco ($15), while you’re there.

Ada’s, adaspasta.com, 805-1139

What to eat while watching Tampopo? Is there any question? A bowl of ramen from Pai Men Miyake. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

3.
What to watch: Tampopo

Really an interwoven set of narratives that all pivot around food, this 1985 Japanese movie will forever alter how you look at a bowl of ramen. It is, at once, a love story about a widow and the man who helps transform her noodle shop, as well as a frequently hilarious send-up of Hollywood genre flicks.

Be on the lookout for: A chase scene where a shop owner hunts down an old woman with a penchant for manhandling groceries.

What to order:
Slurping dashi-slick noodles seems like the only appropriate way to honor ramen, Tampopo’s true main character. Pai Men Miyake has you covered with its curbside pickup service. Start with charred Brussels sprouts in an aromatic fish sauce vinaigrette ($10) and then progress directly to a filling bowl of shoyu ramen ($14.50): skinny noodles in a savory soy and chicken stock, custardy-yolked egg and a tight coil of pork belly.

Pai Men Miyake, miyakerestaurant.com, 541-9204

4.
What to watch: Babette’s Feast
Based on a Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen short story, Gabriel Axel’s 1987 movie tells the story of Babette, a French immigrant to Denmark, and an extravagant meal she prepares in gratitude to the community that took her in. Simultaneously sweet, brooding and sentimental, it is a film that always leaves me teary-eyed as well as ravenous.

Be on the lookout for: The ultra-pious sisters who (fearing that sensual pleasure is ungodly) attempt to camouflage their evident delight at every bite of Babette’s cooking.

What to order:
There’s no chance of scoring a bowl of this film’s signature dish, turtle soup, but really, any elegant, slightly over-the-top dinner will do. It’s easy to put such a meal together from the upstairs-only “fusion” menu at N to Tail. Start with raw scallops tossed in yuzu vinaigrette with apple and radish ($13), perhaps an order of gingery butter dumplings ($6), then a mandatory order of confit rabbit leg served with chewy soy-glazed ddeok ($22). Even eaten at home, it remains one of the city’s finest dishes.

N to Tail, ntotail.com, 773-2900

5.
What to watch: Big Night
Compromise is difficult. It’s especially rough when you, like Primo, the chef of a flagging Jersey Shore restaurant, consider yourself to be an artist in a town full of meatball-scarfing cretins. Primo’s brother, Secondo – played by the 1996 film’s co-director, Stanley Tucci – is more pragmatic and less principled than his brother. Neither is equipped to handle the pressure of an impending visit by Big Band leader Louis Prima.

Be on the lookout for: A couple who dares to order risotto, then an additional side order of spaghetti, in turn forcing Secondo to beg his brother to “Make it, make it, make it, make the pasta!”

What to order:
You won’t need to beg to get what you want at Laura and Bob Butler’s tiny South Portland Italian restaurant, Enio’s. In the face of the current lockdown, the pair continues to offer a broad, ever-changing selection of homey Italian dishes and more American-style comfort foods. Chef Primo wouldn’t approve, but Laura Butler’s grilled Angus tenderloins over ravioli ($32) are worth staying home for, just like her chocolate-and-caramel-sauced blondie ($8).

Enio’s (South Portland), enioseatery.com, 799-0207

6.
What to watch: Delicatessen
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is probably better known for his next film, Amelie, but Delicatessen, a surrealist 1991 art comedy is a dystopian object lesson in how good we locked-down Mainers actually have it. Set in an apartment building that houses a creepy butcher, the movie is part love story and part chiller, but it never fails to make you laugh.

Be on the lookout for: A resident who provides dark comic relief through her repeated unsuccessful attempts to off herself.

What to order:
Watching a film where seeds and beans are used only as currency, you’ll want something hearty to eat – despite the comically grim provenance of the movie’s meat. I like to think about what the characters would eat if they could, and for my money, that’s German food from Schulte & Herr. Start with crisp potato pancakes with horseradish sauce, cornichons and house-cured salmon ($11) and then golden-crusted pork schnitzel served with an oniony potato salad strewn with bacon ($18).

Schulte & Herr, schulteundherr.wordpress.com, 773-1997

Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Brandon Hammond, and Morgan Méchelle Smith in “Soul Food.” Photo courtesy of IMDb

7.
What to watch: Soul Food
George Tillman Jr.’s exuberant 1997 drama might technically be about the ebbs and flows of relationships among members of an extended family, but for me, its about Sunday dinner. Black-eyed peas, fried catfish, and sweet cornbread, “the kind Big Mama would make to look like pound cake so us kids would eat it.” I’m hungry just thinking about those scenes; imagine watching them.

Be on the lookout for: A family dinner scene that will forever make you pay closer attention to where you toss your dish towels.

What to order:
These days, it can be tricky to find anything approaching traditional American soul food in Southern Maine, but The Buxton Common comes admirably close, with dishes like St. Louis-style smoked ribs with coleslaw, baked beans and cornbread ($15) and a three-piece barbecue chicken meal served with potato salad and roasted broccoli ($15).

Closer to Portland, Salvage BBQ’s vegan collard greens ($7/pint) and hintingly sweet, deep-fried hush puppies ($4/$7) are good enough to make the cut onto just about anyone’s Sunday dinner table.

Buxton Common (Buxton), thebuxtoncommon.com, 298-9621
Salvage BBQ, salvagebbq.com, 553-2100

8.
What to watch: A Matter of Taste: Serving up Paul Liebrandt
Chefs are notorious for being moody and difficult, with quirks that are simultaneously charming and maddening. That might go double for Paul Liebrandt, a young British chef working in New York at the beginning of the 2000s. This 2011 HBO documentary puts all of Liebrandt’s neuroses and brilliance on display, as it charts his career in the run-up to the opening of his first major restaurant, Corton.

Be on the lookout for: Liebrandt’s teeth-gnashing resentment of Frank Bruni (who also appears in the film), the former restaurant critic of the New York Times.

What to order:
When he worked at Papillon, Liebrandt bridled at the notion that casual comfort food could please sophisticated diners in troubling times. Thankfully, chef Josh Berry at Union in the (currently shuttered) Press Hotel disagrees. He and his team have transformed their normally high-concept, fine-dining restaurant to allow them to offer a rotating selection of family-style takeout meals ($49 for 2 people, $79 for 4), like duck cassoulet made with local beans, or a roasted whole cauliflower served with naan and a tangy cucumber raita.

Union, unionportland.com, 808-8700

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]


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