Viva marinara sauce, viva crucifix necklaces, viva neighborhoods where everyone knows your name, viva Italia, and every other Italian stereotype! Every one of them converges in Little Italy, a romantic comedy truly unlike any other movie you’ll see this year: Anakin Skywalker (from the Star Wars prequels) dates Addie Singer (from Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous), and all of Canadian Little Italy has to pay the price. Little Italy might not be the love story we want (that’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), but it is the love story we probably deserve: convoluted, confusing, unsexy, and heartfelt-adjacent. It has nothing in common with any real Italian romance movies, say, Call Me by Your Name, Under the Tuscan Sun, or The Wedding Planner, in which Jennifer Lopez plays a full-blooded Italian woman. There are no declarations of love over red wine, no bustling, well-lit family dinners where our lovers make eye contact and smirk across a crowded table, not even a montage set to “Hey Mambo.”
Leo Campo’s (Hayden Christensen) father is the “don of dough,” and Nikki Angioli’s (Emma Roberts) dad is the “maestro of marinara.” The two families once owned and operated Canadian Little Italy’s most successful pizza joint until a mystery feud spoiled their partnership. No one knows exactly how or why, but when we meet them, the families are the Montagues and Capulets of the Canadian pizza business. And what better way to test the rivalry than two budding romances? Leo and Nikki are falling in love, of course, but so are their respective single grandparents (Andrea Martin and Danny Aiello). When Nikki returns home to get her visa straightened out so she can can work in London as a chef, sparks fly. I watched this movie so you don’t have to, and it is absolutely incumbent upon me as a pizza lover to report the seven craziest things that happen in it.
A “romantic” midnight soccer game.
No other romantic comedies should even try to play with soccer after She’s the Man, the masterpiece starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum. Little Italy does: when Leo and Nikki run into each other the night she returns to Little Italy, they start flirtatiously bickering, and he invites her to settle their playful argument outside with a … soccer game? In the middle of the night? In the pouring rain? And the entire bar of adult patrons follows them outside to watch? He kicks the ball around a few times, and she — barefoot, in a strapless, short bodycon dress, in a monsoon — tries to block his kicks. There is such a thing, it becomes clear quite quickly, as being too wet. Like, weird wet; like, how-can-you-flirt-when-you’re-actively-courting-pneumonia wet. With every goal Leo makes, Nikki drinks a shot; with every goal she blocks, he drinks one. Eventually the onlookers go back inside to drink more, Leo and Nikki collapse on the field (still in the rain), their bodies intertwined, and I’m placing a call to the emergency room because they are on the brink of illness!
As part of the long-running Campo-Angioli feud, the two fathers and pizzeria owners try to prank one another as much as possible. Papa Angioli’s latest idea: to replace the oregano with marijuana. Apparently no one smells or tastes or sees the difference until the entire pizzeria erupts into a party (complete with elderly women dancing on tables and the “I Like to Move It” song from Madagascar), and police officers arrive to pick up their standing Sunday afternoon pizza order. When Leo is handcuffed, the female officer sexually harasses him in front of the entire block because haha, Little Italy, right?!
Leo’s best friend and roommate is Luigi, an Asian man who runs an Italian dive bar. And this is fine and totally normal, until halfway through his first scene when it’s clear that he punctuates every sentence with a “ciao, bella” or a “signore,” and is openly ashamed of his culture and heritage. It turns out that when Luigi came out to his father years ago, his parents threw him out of the house for being gay. An Italian barkeep named Luigi, however, took him in, and Luigi has been Italian ever since. “When I was Lizao Ping I was an outcast. When I became Luigi, everyone accepted me.” When Luigi makes this confession to Leo, of course, he playfully makes a pass at him, because boys will be boys!
None of the pizza looks good!
Remember in Moonlight when André Holland makes Trevante Rhodes a chef’s special? The intimacy of that scene: the colors, the flavors, the steam basically rising from the movie screen and finding its way into my own nostrils. Or in Lady and the Tramp, when those dogs eat a noodle and kiss? Or even in Charlie’s Angels, when Drew Barrymore comes over to Sam Rockwell’s place (before we knew his character was evil, spoiler alert) and brings Shake ‘n Bake? Those are sexy food scenes! The best we get here is Nikki suggesting Leo top the pizza he makes for their date with … figs. The pizza in Little Italy is bland and looks reheated and that seems like a damning flaw.
Leo is but a humble cook/delivery boy/T-shirt wearer at his dad’s pizzeria, but he dreams of more: a restaurant inspired by the organic garden he’s started on his roof. (It’s unclear if other people have roof access in the building). On his first proper date with Nikki, they make pizza together and eat it outside. There are only like four planters and it seems like the regular table lamps positioned next to each one would block the organic oregano from getting any natural light, but hey, not my garden. “I hope something like this could be my legacy: pizza on the bottom, organic garden on top. I’ll call it Pizza Organica,” Leo says, seriously. “I love it,” Nikki replies. “Have you leased a space?”
An airport security love declaration.
In Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding proposes to Constance Wu as she boards a commercial airplane. That is deranged, but cute. In Little Italy, Leo confesses that he loves Nikki as she makes her way through airport security. She’s displaying classic careless form: she leaves her jacket on, has loose change in her pocket, a bracelet on her wrist that sets off the metal detector (jetting through a TSA security checkpoint is my personal Olympics). Leo catches up with her, and stops her — and the rest of the passengers behind her — to confess his love. “Nothing ever changes here,” Nikki complains.
“I’ve changed!” Leo promises.
“Girl, go to London,” a TSA agent advises her. “Don’t change your plans for no man!”
Nikki does not take this advice.
“You can take the girl outta Little Italy, but you can’t take the Little Italy outta the girl.”