Nelly Writes — Stories

Why Does Everybody Want to Learn How to Make a Timpano?
An Italian point of view.

19 timpanos, 13 scacciate alla catanese, 11 trays of stuffed vegetables flavored with amaretti & pine-nuts, and close to 250 passulate (cookies baked on lemon leaves). These are the numbers of the last five classes that I taught at Sur la Table cooking school in San Francisco and Berkley. After almost three years since the movie "the Big Night", a bittersweet low-budget film about passion, betrayal and the magic of Italian food, timpano-mania is still going strong.

Timpano extraodinaire

My personal story with timpano started when a few of my students encouraged me to go see the movie soon after it came out, saying that I would liked it but didn't tell me why.

One evening I went with my good friend Lalla, who is also Italian and helps with my cooking classes. The movie is about two immigrant Italian brothers who are owners of a struggling restaurant in New Jersey in the 50s. The younger brother Secondo is business oriented and willing to please his clientele. Primo the elder brother is uncompromising about the quality and authenticity of the food he serves. In order to avoid bankruptcy and drum up some business they decide to spend their last resources and host a big night of memorable food in honor of the famos musician Louis Prima. Highlight of the multicourse dinner is timpano, a remarkable concoction also known as timballo.

Right away Lalla and I noticed that the audience was laughing when we didn't and viceversa, keeping quiet when we were laughing. The actors were good but not Italian. We couldn't help missing the familiar body language and the dialectal accent in the Italian dialogue, essential ingredients of the Italian culture. Just try to imagine Roberto Benigni without his Tuscan accent, facial expressions and body language.

Also, being Italian, I'll honestly say that weren't all that impressed by the almost religious atmosphere that surrounded the food. We grew up surrounded by big food feasts, a food marathon at Easter or Christmas or other occasion is only natural. It's just about the most important way to celebrate (besides going to church.)

At the end of the show we decided to interview some of the people coming out of the theatre. "We liked the movie because of the food, the passion, the family ties. It's wonderful that so many things can come out of food," was the common answer we got from most. Apparently nobody had noticed the missing Italian touches. "This movie isn't really about Italy," I told Lalla. "it's about what Americans think of Italian culture." I was starting to understand what my students were trying to tell me. "We know you are authentic Italian and a little bit uncompromising just like Primo. Why don't you cook and teach us how to make timpano so that we can recreate that magic?"

I went home and started to experiment. I had eaten timpano many times in Italy but I had never cooked one. I remembered it had a deliciously crispy rice crust flavored with Parmesan cheese and herbs. The inside consisted of an abundance of pasta, ragu, mozzarella, meat balls & green peas. My 10 year old daughter, Irene, who likes pastasciutta in every possible way and is also my favorite assistant in the kitchen, offered to help. In no time a ragu (tomato/meat/herb sauce) was perfuming the kitchen and the neighbohood. While Irene was in charge of making tiny meatballs flavored with parsley, nutmeg and grated Parmesan cheese, I was boiling the rice, dicing mozzarella, slicing mortadella and grating Romano & Parmesan cheese. I decided that the best pasta to use would be fusilli bucati because they "hold the cooking" as we say in Italy. Now came the challenge: what container to use that had the shape of a timpano (drum), was easy to unmold and non-stick? I opted for an old-fashioned pyrex round casserol dish. I buttered it very well and, for good measure, I placed a round of parchment paper on the bottom and buttered that too. I sprinkled breadcrumbs evenly on the greased surface. Soon I was lining the mold with the boiled, seasoned rice. Then I dressed the pasta with ragu.

The moment I started arranging layers of pasta, hard boiled eggs, cheeses and meatballs inside the rice crust I heard my daughter say: "Mamma, cosa fai?!" "Mom, what are you doing?, mixing rice and pasta? I don't think I am going to eat this .... mess!" In my enthusiasm to make the timpano a reality, I had not taken into account the somewhat acquired taste needed to appreciate it. Irene, born in Italy, but grown here isn't used to this sophistication. I tried to explain to her that in certain parts of Italy this is very normal, but it was useless. She kept her word and never touched a timpano again. I had lost my helper, but not my enthusiasm. I sealed my box with a layer of rice, which would become the bottom of the drum, eggwashed it and placed it in the oven, estimating it would take approximately 30 minutes at 350 degrees F to get a wonderful golden crust.

My first timpano made a very nice dinner that evening for everybody except Irene. My husband and I agreed it had a lot of potential. "Maybe a little more sauce, the chunks of mozzarella should be bigger, how about some slices of tomatoes on the bottom?"

After a few other tests, I felt ready to teach it. It was the beginning of the "Big Night" era.

I taught "Big Night" in my home, in cooking schools, in private homes, I catered the "Big Night" menu, I was even asked to teach it at a surprise party cooking class.

One of my customers ordered the "Big Night" menu three week ends in a row!

Of course there were accidents like that time I decided to use a different container. The stainless steel bowl I had used wouldn’t let go of the timpano which came out like it had been hit by a bomb. What a nightmare! The class tried to cheer me up by saying "It’s going to taste just great, that’s OK", but I was convinced that my career as a timpano cooking teacher was over. I was wrong. Timpano-mania just kept growing.

Still at the back of my mind I was thinking: "What is it with timpano? Why does everybody want to learn how to make it?"

One week after the timpano-thon at Sur la Table was over, I had the answer. It came in the mail from a student who wrote me this card: "Dear Nelly, thank you so much for your class at Sur la Table on the "Big Night" menu. I made it the following Saturday and I felt like my guests elevated me to a goddess! Everything came out very nicely, and my husband loved the leftovers. The class was wonderful and the recipes easy to follow. The smells in my kitchen were intoxicating...."

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"I come from a country where food is a central part of life. My passion and mission is to share my love of food and cooking with my students. Also to give them the inspiration and tools to create memorable meals and live meaningful experiences in the kitchen." - Nelly Capra