In the culinary-obsession movies that inevitably get praised by critics as ”mouth-watering,” there is generally one lollapalooza cooking scene in which we’re meant to ooh and aah over the dish being prepared as if we were the garlic-liberation minions packing the audience of ”Emeril Live.” Dinner Rush, the badly titled but terrific new film that unfurls on one big night in a trendy nouveau- Italian restaurant in downtown Manhattan, has that sort of scene, except that the director, Bob Giraldi, is savvy enough to treat it not as the usual sublimated-erotics-of-the-kitchen yuppie food porn but as a throwaway, taste-bud-teasing joke.
Udo (Edoardo Ballerini), the star chef of Gigino, is a fanatical young shark who always has a dozen things simmering at once: meals, lovers, career moves. Among the many savory characters who are packing the restaurant, one of them is a prestige New York food writer (Sandra Bernhard) who is there to be wined, dined, flirted with, and wowed. Udo is more than busy, but in the fluorescent basement kitchen, which has the tenor of an emergency room at full throttle, he improvises an outrageous tall-food marvel, irresistible in its grandiosity: a lobster, planted in champagne-cream-shallot sauce, set against a giant looping wall of deep-fried pasta. The dish is a hit, but whether it’s a success of sensuality or vanity isn’t quite clear.
Most food movies, even the great ”Big Night,” celebrate the redemptive earthiness of cuisine. ”Dinner Rush” gets at something else — the romantic theatrical bustle of big-city dining in which appetite has been turned into a tactile form of ego. Giraldi, who is still best known for directing the video for Michael Jackson’s ”Beat It,” lets his camera swirl through the casual-chic elegance of the restaurant’s exposed-brick expanse, yet ”Dinner Rush” never looks or feels like a movie set predominantly in two rooms. It’s bursting with organic pockets of intrigue and chatter and revenge, and it catches you up, like an Altman film, in the fluky rhythms and moods of its characters.
There’s the courtly, sotto voce Louis (Danny Aiello, in a rare delicate performance), the Gigino owner and Mob bookmaker who is desperately trying to hold on to his kingdom; Udo, his celebrated son, whose Mario Batali-style fusion cooking has made the restaurant a smash, even though his father can’t abide it; the sous chef, Duncan (Kirk Acevedo), who likes to place self-destructive bets from the kitchen line; a pair of mobsters from Queens (led by the riveting Mike McGlone) who are trying to muscle their way into Louis’ action; an art gallery owner (Mark Margolis) dripping with unctuous sarcasm as he dines with his entourage; and a deceptively mild striped-tie Wall Streeter (John Corbett) who surveys the scene around him as he enjoys a solo meal at the bar.
Some of these characters tie together in surprising ways, and some are just having a night out. Under Giraldi’s deft and understated hand, though, they are all the zestiest of company. ”Dinner Rush” has a few unpolished edges, but it’s the first food movie to capture the joyful civilized mania of people who live not just to eat but to talk about eating.