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Canadian rom-com Little Italy tells you exactly what kind of film it’s going to be in the first two minutes: a leaning tower of clichés built on a foundation of stereotypes.

Opening to the totally unexpected strains of Mambo Italiano (clearly a touchstone for co-screenwiter Steve Galluccio, who penned a movie with the same name), it gives us two adorable scamps, Nikki Angioli (Ava Preston) and Leo Campo (Nicky Cappella), wreaking adorable havoc in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood in the ’90s.

In the voice-over, the adult versions of those kids (Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen) wax nostalgic about their idyllic childhoods, when the streets were paved with mozzarella and amore oozed from every doorway, but especially from Pizza Napoli, the thriving pizzeria run by their parents, Sal and Dora Angioli, and Vince and Corrine Campo.

The restaurant was a neighbourhood staple, thanks to the combined magic of their grandparents’ specialties: a perfect crust from Carlo (Danny Aiello, no stranger to movie pizzerias) and a secret red sauce from Franca (Andrea Martin).

But now the kids are all grown up. Nikki is at culinary school in Europe, while Leo still toils at the pizzeria in Little Italy — now called Vince’s, as a mysterious argument has seen the two sets of parents descend into a bitter rivalry, setting up shop next to each other and competing, unsuccessfully, for customers.

When Nikki has to return to Canada to get a work visa, sparks fly with Leo (or they would, if Christensen weren’t made of wood), but his reputation as a lothario who delivers more than pizza, if you get our drift, makes her leery, not to mention her family’s disapproval... oh, and a potential job running the kitchen of her famous chef-mentor’s brand-new restaurant in London.

Director Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality) can’t commit to a tone; the film’s sentimental moments sit uneasily next to scenes of not-quite-broad-enough slapstick. The script by Galluccio and Vinay Virmani (Dr. Cabbie) is tiresomely predictable — with a dollop of casual racism when it comes to the characters of colour that’s about as welcome as pineapple on a margherita pie.

Little Italy’s got plenty of pizza-related cred, from Aiello’s iconic role as pizzeria owner Sal in Do the Right Thing to Petrie’s film directorial debut — Mystic Pizza. But almost everything about it rings false, from the lack of chemistry (and clear 10-year age gap) between Roberts and Christensen, to the latter’s laughable goombah accent.

The dialogue is artificial, filled with dreadful double entendres and mawkish metaphors.

In one high-larious scene, Sal switches out Vince’s oregano for pot. The cop who arrests him accuses him of "spiking our pizza with weed," which makes him sound like he’s an undercover narc trying to infiltrate a high school drug ring.

Martin — an unfortunate go-to for broad ethnic stereotypes — sports an Eye-talian accent that’s only made worse when she’s forced to say lines like, "I hit him over the head with a piece of prosciutto."

We’re expected to believe Nikki is a trained chef because she uses figs — what culinary innovation! — as a topping, even though she refers to four-Michelin-star restaurants (three is the top rating) and says things like "I’m a chef! I don’t do pizza."

But if the main romance is less than fizzy, at least some of the other characters share genuine rapport.

A weekly insult contest between dads Vince (Gary Basaraba) and Sal (Adam Ferrara) has some real zing; Ferrara’s comic chops deserve more.

Despite misguided attempts to make his character a horndog, Aiello is quite sweet as an old-world gentleman in love with the feisty Franca.

And it must be said, the pizza looks pretty delicious.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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