If you love food, you’ve gotta see Big Night.
This isn’t negotiable. It’s all there: the clash between first-generation and Americanized ethnic food. Commerce versus love. Art versus capitalism. Snobbery versus populism. Authenticity versus reinvention. A massive multicourse meal with a scope and grandeur that would have impressed Orson Welles.
The push and pull between two brothers running an Italian restaurant on the Jersey Shore in the 1950s (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, both stellar) and the rivalry between their small, diehard authentic restaurant and a much larger, more successful place run by a canny, shark-like rival (Ian Holm) is like a riptide, and the only thing holding things together seems to be a shared interest in eating and drinking bountifully.
The culinary heart of the film is the timpano, a drum-like (thus the name) dish that is something of an Italian turducken: meatballs, fresh pasta, red sauce, salami, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs encased within a massive pasta shell baked in a bowl.
In the film and in real life, the timpano is not easy to make. It’s less a single entree than a superhero alliance of dishes, each requiring its own process and effort. Not until you have made scratch meatballs, scratch pasta, scratch sauce, and a big ol’ pasta shell do you even really get to assemble your timpano, and then it’s another two hours before you’ll get to eat it.
And then: drama! Will it hold together? Will it stand up to being inverted and sliced up? The timpano’s creation and presentation is high drama in Big Night, and we found that the effect is greatly magnified when it’s your own painstakingly crafted creation that’s on the line.
Therefore, it’s catnip to food lovers. We had to give it a shot.
In all, our timpano cost somewhere between $50 and $100 (depending on how you count supplies and ingredients that could be repurposed for other meals) and took a team of about three active cooks about three hours to create — nine man-hours of active work, in other words. Add to that another two hours of hanging around and drinking wine while it baked.
So, was it worth it?
Yes. It was worth it. We got together with friends, sipped our drinks, listened to music, watched one another’s babies do adorable baby things, rolled out pasta, simmered sauce, sauteed meatballs, and snacked on the pre-timpano offerings: oil-cured olives, fig spread and crostini, and the odd handful of cheese and salami bits left over from the timpano’s assembly process.
Making the timpano was a blast. Waiting for it to finish baking was a delight. Unveiling it was Big Night dramatic, and eating it was a dream: The flavors melded and married in the pasta drum, the taste of each individual component (the meatballs! the pasta! the cheese!) was delicious, and the ability to mix and match flavors at will was endlessly entertaining. We have no regrets.
Special thanks to the Daniels-Friedman family and the Hajinian family; we could not have done this without your help.
NOTES ON OUR RECIPE:
You could make a timpano using jarred sauce, pre-made meatballs, layered baked lasagna noodles, and dried penne. It would be a loveless, miserable abomination of a thing, but you could do it. You’d also be a bad person.
Our thought process was: Big Night is about food as love and passion, not shortcuts. It’s about obsession. It’s about doing it right to let people know that they’re special. It’s not about an inverted jar of Newman’s Own. Thus, this recipe is scratch-made, through and through. We shopped at two of our favorite places, Everett’s Meat Market and Seward Co-op, although you probably have your own standbys that can fit the bill nicely.
Our final timpano recipe incorporates adaptations of two different New York Times recipes (one for timpano, and one for the marinara sauce, which we preferred to heavier red sauces) and the Stanley Tucci timpano recipe (also published in the Times). It also includes a number of tweaks and variations.
The major adaptations we recommend are as follows:
Make fresh pasta
If Primo can make garganelli (the rustic, handmade incarnation of penne) for his timpano, so can we, we figured. Obviously, that’s crazy: Primo is an obsessive culinary genius.
Still: We did it. Ultimately, the process turned out to be on par with the meatballs in terms of effort and was greatly rewarding. The garganelli were tender and delicate, not big rubbery starch bombs.
Use marinara sauce, not a heavier or (God-forbid) meaty red sauce
Simple, bright, clean — these characteristics of marinara are all reasons to invite it to an otherwise heavy, overwhelmingly meaty party.
Use whole hard-boiled eggs
Most timpano recipes call for hard-boiled eggs that are sliced or chopped. We went with whole eggs because, hey, massive visual impact, and the possibility of a cleanly bisected egg when you cut your wedge.
Plus, photographer Becca Dilley has documented Ethiopian weddings featuring massive layered injera stew dishes with whole hard-boiled eggs that looked and tasted amazing. So we borrowed a bit from Ethiopia to make this Italian-inspired dish, much as Ethiopian cuisine has borrowed from Italy’s.
Plate with extra marinara
Our only consensus regret after making this dish — and it’s a minor regret, to be sure — was that there wasn’t a bit more of that bright, tomato-y marinara on hand to complement the rest of the timpano. When you make yours, reserve one-third of the sauce and use it to dress each plate before it receives its slice of timpano. You’ll enjoy it.
THE HEAVY TABLE’S TIMPANO
Serves: 12-14 people
Prep time: 2-3 hours | Cooking and resting time: 2 hours
4 c all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
4 large eggs
1 tsp kosher salt
3 tbsp olive oil, more for greasing pan
Put flour, eggs, salt, and olive oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add three tablespoons of water and mix.
Add more water, roughly a tablespoon at a time, until mixture comes together and forms a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead to make sure it is well mixed, about 10 minutes.
Set it aside to rest for 5 minutes.
(If you want to do a bit of timpano work ahead of time — not a bad thought — the dough may be made in advance and refrigerated overnight. Return it to room temperature before rolling it out.)
Flatten the dough on a lightly floured work surface, dust it with flour, and roll it out, dusting with more as needed. You’re looking for a final dough round that’s about 1 / 16th of an inch thick and big enough to enfold the middle of your 6-quart baking pan or enameled bowl. You may need to roll out on a (properly covered) floor or another unconventionally large surface, or let some dough overhang your counter edge.
Grease the baking pan or bowl generously with butter and olive oil. Fold the dough in half and then in half again, to form a triangle, and place in pan or bowl.
Open the dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and the sides, draping extra dough over the sides. Set aside.
2 c flour
1 tsp salt
Combine flour and salt. Make a well in the pile of flour and salt, and crack eggs into the well. Use a fork to incorporate the egg and flour mixture. Knead for 5-10 minutes, then let rest for 20 before rolling out with roller or pasta machine.
Cut pasta into 1.5″x1.5″ squares, and, using a small wooden dowel and garganelli stripper, roll into penne-like tubes.
Boil until very al dente, about 2 minutes in boiling water, then drain and shock with cold water. Set aside.
3 28-oz cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, certified D.O.P. if possible
¾ c extra-virgin olive oil
1 head’s worth of garlic cloves, peeled and slivered
3 small pinches crushed red pepper flakes
3 large fresh basil sprigs or ¾ teaspoon dried oregano, plus more to taste
1 tbsp kosher salt
Pour tomatoes into a large bowl and crush with your hands. Pour 1 cup water into can and slosh it around to get tomato juices. Reserve.
Heat the oil in a large skillet (do not use a deep pot) over medium heat. When it’s hot, add garlic.
As soon as garlic is sizzling (don’t let it brown), add the tomatoes, then the reserved tomato water. Add red pepper flakes, oregano (if using), and salt. Stir.
Place basil sprigs, including stems, on the surface. Let it wilt, then submerge in sauce. Simmer sauce until thickened and oil on surface is a deep orange, about 15 minutes. (If using oregano, taste sauce after 10 minutes of simmering, adding more salt and oregano as needed.) Discard basil. Cool to room temperature, and set 1 / 3 aside in one place (for plating), 2 / 3 in another (for filling the timpano).
1 lb ground pork
1 ½ lbs ground beef
1 ½ tsp fennel seed, finely ground
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ c chopped parsley
1 ½ c finely chopped or torn bread crumbs from Italian bread
Combine all the meatball ingredients. Roll into 50-70 balls, using 1 rounded tablespoon of meat for each. In a large nonstick or cast iron frying pan, cook as many meatballs as will fit in one layer over medium heat in olive oil, turning occasionally, for 15-20 minutes. Repeat if necessary. Set aside in a bowl at room temperature.
1 lb Genoa or Toscano salami cut into ¼-inch cubes
1 lb provolone cheese chunks, about ¼ by ½ inch (note: you can use ½ lb mild provolone and ½ lb smoked or sharp provolone to add a bit more flavor)
1 lb mozzarella cheese chunks, about ¼ by ½ inch
12 hard-boiled eggs
2 tbsp olive oil
1 c finely grated pecorino Romano
6 large eggs, beaten
meatballs (see above)
marinara (see above)
garganelli, par-boiled, cooled, and drained (see above)
Heat oven to 350°F. Bring salami, provolone, mozzarella, hard-boiled eggs, meatballs, and marinara sauce at room temperature.
Toss the pasta with olive oil and allow to cool slightly before tossing with 2 cups sauce.
Distribute 1 / 3 of your pasta on bottom of timpano.
Top with 1 (rough) cup salami, 1 (rough) cup provolone, 3 eggs, 1 (rough) cup meatballs, and 1 / 3 cup Romano cheese.
Create a layer of hard-boiled eggs.
Pour 2 cups sauce over ingredients. Repeat process to create additional layers until filling comes within 1 inch of the top of the pan, ending with 2 cups sauce.
Pour beaten eggs over the filling, distributing evenly to fill cracks. Fold pasta dough over filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough.
Make sure timpano is tightly sealed. Ours leaked a bit, and it wasn’t the end of the world, but as much as you can tightly seal it, do.
If you notice any small openings, cut a piece of trimmed dough to fit over opening. Use a small amount of water to moisten the scraps of dough, ensuring that a tight seal has been made.
Bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour. Then cover with aluminum foil and continue baking until the timpano is cooked through and the dough is golden brown (and reaches an internal temperature 120°F), about 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and let rest for 30 minutes or more to allow the timpano to cool and contract before attempting to remove from the pan. The baked timpano should not adhere to the pan. To test, gently shake pan to the left and then to the right. It should slightly spin in the pan. If any part is still attached, carefully detach with a knife.
To remove the timpano from the pan, place a baking sheet or thin cutting board that covers the entire diameter of the pan on top of the timpano.
Invert the timpano.
Slice the timpano as you would a pie, into individual portions. Have a big night.