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20th Annual Toast to the Triangle 

Experience a Big Night of your own

Fans of the 1996 movie Big Night know how frustrating watching it can be. Set in the 1950s, it's the story of a failing Italian restaurant, specifically the feast they put on one night in order to try to save the place.

This is the type of Italian restaurant many of us dream about: those of us who have been to Italy and know firsthand how good Italian food can be, and those of us who understand the promise of Italian food but have never been able to find nirvana in the red sauces and breaded cutlets of Americanized Southern Italian cooking. This makes the movie harder to swallow still--the restaurant it depicts is being shouldered out by the big, flashy restaurant up the street, a restaurant that we have to assume adds sugar to its red sauces and boils tons of packaged pasta every night. They certainly don't take 20 minutes to make their risotto.

The movie is frustrating because we watch as real Italian cooking is pushed aside for a lesser art form. We feel as though if we could just reach back and change these events, we would have a different species of Italian restaurants in our midst today. But the real torture of the movie is watching as the meal unfolds--seeing it, almost being able to smell it, and knowing you will never get to eat it.

For the second year now, Catering Works and the Carolina Theatre in Durham kick off the Toast to the Triangle benefit for the Tammy Lynn Memorial Foundation with a tribute to Big Night in the form of a feast replicating the meal in the movie. The Catering Works multi-course meal takes place next Saturday, March 12 at 7 p.m. in the Carolina Theatre's ballroom, and a screening of the movie follows. Any attempt to bring a fantasy to life is dangerous, but everyone who went last year said the food was amazing and the night was wonderful. Debbie DiSabatino, the food stylist and chef who created the food in the movie, will also be on hand. The evening costs $110 per person and is formal (jacket and tie required).

For Toast to the Triangle, the Big Night event is just the kickoff. On Tuesday, March 22, Tallula's in Chapel Hill will host a Middle Eastern and Turkish feast complete with belly dancing and traditional music. The cost for the "Turkish Delight" evening is $70 per person and attire is sharp-casual.

Toast to the Triangle's main event takes place on Sunday, April 3 at the Raleigh Convention Center from 5-7:30 p.m. For $70 per person it's a pretty good deal, and it's the only place I can think of where you can try food from some of the area's best restaurants all under one roof. Thirty-eight restaurants will be attending, each preparing at least one dish to sample. It's a great way to get a sneak peek at what you might expect from a dining experience at these places. A couple of newer restaurants will be showcased this year, including Nana's Chophouse and Cary's Blue Note LP. Local wine and beer purveyors will also be there to showcase their products.

Participating restaurants are eligible for awards for their efforts. Awards will be given again this year in six categories: best entree, best first course, best food presentation, best dessert, best visual theme and best overall. Judges will be local food journalists, chefs and representatives from national food organizations. There will also be a People's Choice award that guests will vote on.

It seems it's benefit season in the Triangle right now. In the past month there have been tsunami benefit dinners, the Triangle Wine Experience benefiting the Frankie Lemmon School, Rockus Bacchus to benefit the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program, and now the Toast to the Triangle. All of these events serve good causes, and all of them present a fun way to give to charity (most of them are even partly tax deductible).

For the average diner, these benefits can be a little intimidating--they are expensive, the menus are often set, and it's not clear whether the meal will be a good time or just a chance for the charity in question to ask for more money and the wine providers to peddle their wares. The good news is that these events are almost always a good deal and are very rarely used to solicit more donations.

The Tammy Lynn Center serves over 440 children and adults with disabilities. For 20 years now, the Toast to the Triangle has been its biggest fundraising event. From dinner and a movie to belly dancing and mezze plates to a Triangle restaurant showcase, there's something here for just about anyone who is in a position to give. For more information and to buy tickets or volunteer for the event, visit atoasttothetriangle.org or call 832-3909.

Restaurant happenings
This week:

  • Monday, March 7, is 50 percent off wine night at Second Empire in Raleigh on all wines by the bottle and the glass. Info: 829-3663.
  • On Thursday, March 10, Il Palio Restaurante in The Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill is hosting a wine dinner featuring wines from the Barolo region of Italy. Wines will be paired with a five-course meal from chef Jim Anile. $125 per person. Reservations: 918-2545.
  • Tosca Ristorante in West Village in Durham is hosting a wine dinner in conjunction with the Chapel Hill Wine Company on Thursday, March 10. Five courses will be paired with Italian wines. $65 per person. Reservations: Call The Chapel Hill Wine Company at 968-1884 or Tosca at 680-6333.
  • On Monday, March 14, Elaine's on Franklin in Chapel Hill will host a four-course wine dinner showcasing white wines from France, and four French winemakers will be there to discuss their wines. $75 per person. Info: www.elainesonfranklin.com. Reservations: 960-2770.
    • Experience a Big Night of your own

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