Perhaps the most famous line in The Godfather is one uttered by Don Corleone and later repeated by his son Michael (Al Pacino): "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." Running a close second is, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Cannolis are a staple of Sicilian cuisine and with their delicate pastry and creamy filling it seems almost absurd to see cannolis show up in a scene involving a violent murder. Don Corleone must keep everyone in his ranks on track and when it becomes clear that Paulie (John Martino) is a liability, he sends his thug Peter Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) to handle the situation. Clemenza and a hired assassin drive Paulie into the wilderness of the Meadowlands in New Jersey (the Statue of Liberty is seen gleaming above the waving reeds), and shoot him. It's quick and brutal, and the businesslike nature of such "hits" is highlighted when Clemenza, dismissing the assassin brusquely, says, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." It's as grim as it is funny.
At the beginning of The Godfather, Don Corleone's youngest son Michael—a World War II veteran with a non-Italian girlfriend (Diane Keaton)—lives outside the family business. They're proud of him and they protect his innocence, initially keeping him out of anything dirty, but as the film progresses, his shift from boy scout to mob boss becomes the central focus. Just as this transition begins to take shape, Michael is pulled to the stove by Clemenza, who walks him through making tomato sauce with sausage and meatballs because, "you might have to cook for twenty guys one day." Clemenza shows him how to put in oil, garlic, tomatoes, and tomato paste then adds the meat followed by wine and sugar. It's a breather before another blast of violence, and it's a reminder that all the action is tied to tradition, the same tradition that created that delicious meaty tomato sauce.
The great Sterling Hayden plays Captain McCluskey, a corrupt cop on the payroll of Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the head of another New York crime family. At a crucial moment, he calls off the police guard around Don Corleone's hospital room, leaving the wounded Don unprotected. Michael, drawn back into the family business, knows they must retaliate, so an elaborate plan is drawn up, in which he will meet with McCluskey and Sollozzo at Louie's Restaurant in the Bronx and, using a gun planted in the bathroom, execute the pair during dinner.
Breaking bread with someone is a universal sign of trust. Sharing food is one of the ways relationships are cemented, and Michael is about to betray that as a bowl of antipasto salad sits at the center of the table and Sollozzo suggests to McCluskey (who is not Italian), "Try the veal. It's the best in the city." It's a taut moment for the viewers who know that if Michael's plan comes together there will be no turning back and his life sheltered from the family business will be over.
Gangster movies have been the bread and butter of Hollywood since its earliest days, with stars such as Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney cutting their teeth in Warner Brothers films about bootlegging and organized crime. But 1972's The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, was an industry game changer. The Academy Award-winning film was one of the first to depict the Mafia from the perspective of its family values, immersing us so fully in the rhythms and personalities of the Corleones that it's difficult to fully vilify them. The Corleones work within a strict moral code, unlike the corrupt police who are a threat to the family and their way of life.
Food is one of the most powerful ways the audience gets to know the Corleone family, who came to America from Sicily and, like many immigrant families, use food to maintain their traditions. While the outer world may be new and challenging, sitting down to a family dinner and eating the food of their ancestors is a ritual of comfort.
In fact, The Godfather almost seems incomprehensible without its food and its significance is emphasized throughout the film, beginning with the opening scene, the wedding of Connie Corleone (Coppola's sister, Talia Shire), an extravagant event with plates of lasagna, antipasto salad, and a gigantic white wedding cake that's carried through the crowd of guests.
But food can also be bad news. Oranges, often symbols of life and regeneration, wealth and stability, are a harbinger of death and tragedy throughout the film, as evidenced by their presence in two critical scenes. Don Corleone, the family patriarch and mob boss portrayed by Marlon Brando, is fruit shopping (oranges included), when two assailants from a rival family gun him down. He recovers and at the conclusion of the film, while playing with his grandson in a small garden, scaring the child by putting an orange peel in his mouth and making faces, he suffers a heart attack and quietly dies.
Check out the slideshow above for all the recipes in The Godfather.