If you've seen the movie "Big Night," in which two Italian brothers attempt to save their dying restaurant by having singer Louis Prima to dinner, you know about timpano, an Italian culinary creation that in the movie got a dining room response only slightly less beatifically orgasmic than the ecstasy of St. Theresa.
Timpano, like much Italian food, has its roots in simple folk; it's a way to make everyday pasta special. A kind of pasta cake, it resembles an inverted timpani, or kettle drum.
Timpano, at its most elemental, is a layered affair of pasta, sauce, cheese and sausage. Being Americans, we overdo everything (talking to you Lou Malnati and other deep dish enthusiasts). We added pasta and sausage, but also meatballs, mushrooms, eggplant, spring garlic, mozzarella, ricotta, provolone, hard-boiled eggs and a Neapolitan ragu containing chunks of veal and chuck. The whole shebang is encased in pasta dough so that when it comes out of the oven it's a drum-like pasta mountain.
One of my great good fortunes is to be married to a person who is willing to cook anything. To inspire Carolyn, I got a new and beautiful Lagostina polenta pan because it was the right size for a regulation timpano. Carolyn set to work, and kept at it for the better part of two days. In "Big Night," they knock it out in an afternoon, even taking the time to make their own pasta: such is the stuff of filmic fantasy.
Carolyn used a semolina flour to make the pasta covering…but she was not entirely happy with the result, saying, "The grain of the flour was not good for incorporating fat, eggs, and water; it was also very difficult to roll." Though I liked the taste, it lacked the diaphanous lightness of the pasta shell in "Big Night," the model for all timpani, now and forever. Re-watching the movie, it looks like the Italian brothers used regular white flour, which made for a lighter, more elastic casing.
We let the timpano cool for the recommended half hour or so, and the crust was already starting to crack.
A bigger problem may have been that we overdid it and just stuffed in too much damn stuff. Next time we (and by "we," I mean mostly Carolyn) make this dish, I'm going to lobby for fewer ingredients.
Carolyn thought there was also a problem with the pan. Maybe, again, we went too fancy. The Lagostina pan was made for polenta, and it will be perfect for that, but it was very deep and made of thick metal. "I think," said Carolyn, "that a thin enameled wash basin like the one used in 'Big Night' would have transferred heat to the crust surface more easily." Again, simpler is better.
In addition, instead of packing the shell with sauce, maybe we'll just add a little sauce to the timpano, and then present each slice of timpano in a pool of sauce so that each slice stays moist and the cake itself is not overloaded.
In timpano, simple Italian household foods – pasta, tomato sauce, sausage or meatballs and cheese – come together in a beautiful thing. Fit for Louis Prima.
Click through the images above to see some steps in the process of creating the timpano in our home kitchen.