The Hungry Engineer

Mambo Italiano

12 Aug 2008

I love movies and of course I love food, so isn’t it fantastic when they come together. On paper it may sound kinda nutty to love a movie that largely features the preparation and consumption of a single fantastic meal, but I do. Big Night is like movie comfort food for me. Watching it makes me smile. Naturally, it was my first choice in movies when I decided to embark on my new movie food project.

Here’s the plan: every so often (I’m thinking maybe once a month), I’d like to cook a dish from a movie. Maybe it won’t always be a “foodie movie” - sometimes it may just be a movie that has a single scene that speaks to the audience culinarily. Who knows!??! The point is, there is interesting potential in this concept.

In the movie Big Night, set in the 1950s, two brothers have traveled to the United States from Italy and are running a failing Italian restaurant that doggedly tries to serve authentic cuisine from their homeland to a resistant public. Everything is falling apart around them, and they’re pinning their last hopes on one magic night during which Louis Prima is to visit their restaurant. The brothers invite everyone around them to their party and spend nearly all the money they have left to treat their guests to the meal of their lives. One of the signature dishes of that night is Timpano. It is a baked pasta dish that begins with a sort of pasta-meets-pastry shell that’s filled with layer upon layer of all manner of wonderful things. Then it’s baked until the filling is set, cooled and removed from its baking vessel, and then sliced like a cake to reveal all its gloriously caloric strata. In a fit of insanity, I decided that’s what I would make.

The cooking began on Saturday. I had found the recipe on CNN’s website - they had posted it as an excerpt from the cookbook Cucina & Famiglia (one whose authors is Joan Tropiano Tucci, mother of Stanley Tucci who holds writing, directing, acting, and producing credits for the film). It’s not a terribly complex recipe, but some of the listed ingredients require you to hunt up other recipes. For instance, ingredients include 2 cups of meatballs (heretic that I am, I used leftover store-bought ones) and 8 cups of meat-based tomato sauce (I used this recipe from I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon on the sauce, and while the sauce was simmering away, I also boiled my eggs and diced up the salami and provalone.

Sunday morning was spent peeling and cutting up the hard-boiled eggs and getting dishes cleaned up. After lunch, the real madness began. I began by cooking the pasta (which had to be done in batches since so much was required). To meet the 18 cup requirement, I wound up par-cooking only about 2 lbs of pasta (instead of the 3 lbs called for in the recipe). I measured out the required sauce (the recipe noted above made about twice as much as I needed) and brought it up to room temperature, thawed out the meatballs and cut them up (so that they were sized similarly to the eggs), and shredded the required pecorino romano cheese. Then I mixed, rested, and rolled out the dough that would eventually wrap up all our timpano fillings into a nice neat drum.

Lacking a proper timpano pan, I opted to use my 6-quart enameled cast-iron dutch oven to shape the timpano. I laid the crust carefully into the pan, letting it drape over the edges and then began assembling layers as prescribed in the recipe. Then I dumped beaten raw eggs all over the top of the past and kind of worked it in with my fingers. Presumably this (along with melting cheese) served as the binder that would allow the timpano to keep its drum-like shape once removed from the pot. I wound up with a dough shortage when I tried to enclose the top of the drum, so a bit of repair-work was required at the end. Next it went into the oven. I employed my trusty oven-proof probe thermometer to let me know when the pasta innards had reached the required temperature.

The tension mounted once I removed the timpano from the oven and set it out to cool. I left it alone for a full hour before removing it from the pot. Leaning the pot sort of on its side, I gently coaxed the pasta from its pan bit-by-bit around its entire circumference, holding my breath the entire time. As I turned it out onto a cutting board and slid the pot off the timpano, I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t picture-perfect, but it had held it’s shape and looked more or less like it was supposed to.

I swear my timpano was frowning at me.

I paced around the house waiting for the timpano to cool further now that it had been removed from its thick heat-retaining pot. Cutting the timpano was even more nerve-wracking than turning it out from the pot. Halving the drum worked well enough, but things started to literally fall apart once I began to quarter it. The whole drum is meant to serve 16, so there was a lot of cutting left. Suffice it to say, that the aesthetic value degraded exponentially as I continued to divide up the timpano. Being the engineer that I am, I can’t help but analyze what might have gone wrong and determine how to fix it for some hypothetical “next time”. In this case, I think there are two things that need to change. First, I probably didn’t roll the crust thin enough. Part of what forced the timpano to kind of fall apart is the knife pushing down on the drum while slicing pieces off for serving. The other thing I was sort of curious about was dropping the raw egg binder only on the very top of the pasta and expecting it to trickle throughout the timpano. In the future, I might be inclined to divide the beaten eggs into thirds and add each part immediately after deploying a new pasta layer. As a little added insurance, I may also up the amount of cheese in the dish.

The long and short is that the timpano took a lot of work (and really, it’s my favorite kind of work) to put together, but it was fun to make and very tasty. A couple friends brought some wine over and ate messy timpano with us and we were all very happy with our dinner. One of my favorite scenes in Big Night is when the huge dinner party was served their food and the camera homed around the table to take in everyone’s faces, each showing a different version of culinary ecstasy. I always grin when I watch that part of the movie, and I truly live for the day when I am able to cause that to happen with my cooking.

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