Nana never made this dish. There is no family recipe for Timpano that has passed down through generations of Parrellas. But when it comes to inspiring nostalgia for the cooking of my grandmother, there’s nothing like Big Night.
Two Italian brothers are on the verge of closing their Queens restaurant, when a friend who claims to know Louis Prima, offers to invite the crooner for a meal. Convinced this will help them put the restaurant on the map, the brothers plan a gala around the event, and the center piece for the meal is Timpano…
A less-generous soul might describe the dish as a glorified baked ziti. But those with a more discerning eye (and palate) sees it for what it is Raviolo di Dio. And Nana knew ravioli, she knew pizza carne; she knew bragiole among others. I spent hours in her kitchen watching and learning how to prepare some of these dishes. Many of them are time intensive and so only made once or twice a year. Timpano is one of those dishes.
After watching Big Night again recently, and listening to me again wax lyrical about making it someday, my wife suggested we try making Timpano for Easter this year. “That would be fun,” I said in a non-committal way. But the suggestion was a compelling one and it set up residence. After a few weeks of intense mulling I decided it was a great idea, and I congratulated myself for having it. I told people I was going to do it; it was now carved in stone, I was going to make Timpano. But, as I said, Nana never tried this dish, which meant: I had no recipe.
Google searches brought up many posts from people trying to reverse engineer the Timpano based on the few shots Stanley Tucci included in the film. Procedures varied as widely as the ingredients, so I figured I’d make it up as I went along based on some informal recipe consensus.
But the recipe wasn’t the first obstacle to overcome; the first obstacle was to find the right dish to cook it in. Taste of course is important, but with a dish like this, presentation is just as vital. Unfortunately, none of the pots or pans we had in our kitchen seemed to quite fit the bill to get that big beautiful shape. It wasn’t something I wanted to order online, I wanted to hold the pot in my hands before making a decision to buy or not. If we couldn’t find something, Timpano wasn’t going to happen. So we began the hunt, ducking into odd kitchen supply shops wherever we stumbled upon one. On a weekend in Vermont in February, we were walking through Woodstock and found the pot quietly sitting in a window at Gillinghams, waiting for us.
The game was officially afoot now. Without the pot, the adventure was still theoretical. Now that we had it, it was time to start the preparation that would clearly determine the success of this dish. With so many time intensive ingredients, I knew I had to plan carefully. So I started the prepping ingredients early, about a week early. I made the meatballs and sauce last weekend because it takes about two hours to prep four-pounds of ground chuck and two gallons of crushed tomatoes. And another two hours of simmering. Now the sauce and meatballs are a family tradition, this was Nana’s recipe passed down in grand oral tradition, “You’re doin’ it wrong!” she’d say as I fumbled with the chuck, egg and spices.
This Saturday I boiled the two pounds of pasta and nine eggs, and baked the pound of bacon. I pulled the slab of prosciutto out of the freezer to thaw. As I cleaned up the kitchen, the smell of confidence was in the air, the smell of generations of Italian cooks quietly working their influence, the smell of bacon. Sunday morning I woke up early and started making the dough for the shell. Once the shell was made the next part was easy, dicing everything and layering the pasta, with the eggs, meat and sauce; folding the shell over the top and sealing it all with an egg wash. Looking good.
It then sat for a couple of hours as we got dressed and drove to my parents for dinner. We arrived a little early so we could cook Timpano on site. This was the tricky bit, there was no consensus on baking time or temp. Since everything inside was already cooked, I reasoned, I just had to heat it up. So I hedged, not wanted to burn the shell. 45 minutes at 350-degrees. Nana followed recipes, she didn’t hedge or guess. I could hear her saying “you’re doin’ it wrong!” as I put Timpano into the oven shrugged and crossed my fingers. Nothing left to do now but wait.
As we pulled it out of the oven, I could see the exposed shell had turned just the right shade of golden brown. At this point I should have let it sit. 15 minutes, 20 minutes. But I was impatient and people had started sitting at the table. I flipped Timpano out of the pot after just five minutes of cooling. Monday morning quarterbacking has revealed any number of things I might have done differently: use a different pan, more grease, lower heat, longer cook time, etc. But on Sunday afternoon I flipped Timpano out of the pot, that is most of Timpano out of the pot.
There was some scraping and patching, but I knew it wouldn’t look how I’d wanted it to. But then maybe presentation wasn’t so important. It only looks that way for about 15 minutes until you cut into it. The memory of taste lasts longer anyway. I’ll remember my grandmother tomato sauce long after I’ve forgotten the color of the tiles in her kitchen. So I may have done it wrong, but it still tasted pretty good.