Seven years after the Italian-themed movie 'Big Night' solidified our romance, we bring the movie's star dish - timpano - to life
I noticed him right away while browsing an online dating site. His picture showed an athletic-looking man in his early 40s wearing a black T-shirt tucked into his jeans standing under an avocado tree on a bright, sunny day.
His profile read: “I love life, ideas, people with big hearts. I write. I paint. I am a jazz musician in addition to being a business consultant... I like Picasso, Diebenkorn, Mozart, Stravinsky, M.F.K. Fisher, Strunk & White, garlic and olive oil... I don't want to be the answer to my lover's life – I want to be the one with whom she finds the right questions.”
I knew I had to meet him.
I lived in Trinidad and Tobago, where I was working as a wire service reporter. He lived in Los Angeles.
I barely remember what I wrote in the e-mail introducing myself (other than to point out the obvious -- that I liked great food and jazz too). To my surprise, he wrote back. Our e-mails grew lengthier and more numerous, until we finally decided it was time to talk.
We set up a phone date, and agreed to treat it like a real date. I showered. He shaved. And we each poured a glass of wine before the call.
The call was schedule for 11 p.m. my time, 8 p.m. his time. The phone rang right at 11 p.m.
I took a gulp of wine. “Hello?”
I was nervous, but his voice, which had a playful, energetic quality, put me at ease.
The call lasted four hours. By the time we finally had to say goodbye, we were whispering.
That conversation led to hundreds more; first we would talk once a day, and then every morning and every night.
During one call, Paul said, “I love you,” and I said it back. We knew that the phrase meant what it meant at that moment and that there was a chance that the physical chemistry wouldn’t work. But we were willing to take that chance.
Two months after the daily phone calls and 'whisper dates,' Paul booked a flight to Port-of-Spain. I stood by the gate at the shabby, dimly-lit airport for more than an hour wearing tight, short, black pants; an elegant white button down top; and Mary Jane style high heels.
I waited, nervously shifting from one foot to the next. I had nothing to lose. We had already figured we would be great friends if it didn’t work out physically. He had even offered to sleep elsewhere, but I said that wasn’t necessary. If things didn't work, he could always sleep on the couch.
After what seemed like an eternity, he appeared through the doors. He wore a green, v-neck sweater, jeans, and black boots. He was overdressed for the Caribbean but very handsome. He spotted me right away and held my eyes as he walked toward me. Without speaking, he put his hand on my lower back, pulled me into him, and kissed me briefly on the mouth.
“Hi,” he said, smiling.
“Hi,” I said back, still locked in his embrace.
After hearing his voice for so long, seeing him in person was like suddenly putting on a pair of 3-D goggles at the movie theater. It was revealing and exciting and overwhelming all at once. We packed his suitcase into my car and we drove toward the sprawling city of Port-of-Spain with the windows open to the humid, Caribbean night air. As I steered onto the highway, he put his hand on my thigh, just high enough above the knee to show his desire, but low enough to be polite.
When we settled into my apartment, he unpacked three bottles of red wine, a few of my favorite magazines (Atlantic Monthly and Harpers), a Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane CD, and a DVD of the movie, ‘Big Night.'
We spent the first two nights adjusting our 3-D goggles into a real, cohesive vision and demonstrating that our physical chemistry would match up quite nicely to our telephone proclamations.
On the third night, we watched ‘Big Night.' We laughed harder than we needed to. The themes of family, authenticity, love, sacrifice, and great food, affirmed a set of values that would define our lives together.
That weekend in Trinidad led to our engagement to be married and our eventual move to the Washington, D.C. area, where Paul is from originally.
On the second night at our new apartment, which was empty save for a futon and a steaming hot carton of General Tsao Chicken, we watched 'Big Night' again on Paul's laptop. We laughed just as hard, and we knew once again that we had made the right decision.
Seven years later, as a gift for Paul’s 49th birthday, I recreated the dish that the movie made famous. Timpano, a deep-dish pie that includes layers of pasta, salami, provolone, meatballs, egg, and tomato sauce, reminded us of the time we first met and how the themes of abundance, appetite, and love still define us.
This recipe is inspired by the recipe in the book "Cucina & Famiglia: Two Italian Families Share Their Stories, Recipes, And Traditions" and adapted with a bechamel sauce, a variation on the tomato sauce, and Mario Batali meatballs.
4 cups flour
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup water, divided
2 cups Genoa salami, sliced from the whole salami at 1/4 inch, and then cut into 1/2 –inch sticks
2 cups Provolone cheese (aged 12 months), sliced at 1/4 inch and then cut into 1/2-inch sticks
12 soft-boiled eggs, shelled, halved lengthwise
2 cups meatballs (recipe follows)
4 cups meat-based tomato sauce (recipe follows)
2 cups béchamel sauce
12 cups cooked ziti (cooked the time on the package minus 2 – 3 minutes)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Cook the pasta until just slightly undercooked, drain, and immediately cool with ice cubes and cold water.
Transfer to a bowl and mix with olive oil.
To make the dough, place flour, eggs, salt and olive oil in a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook or a large capacity food processor. Add 3 tablespoons water and process. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, up to 1/2 cup, until mixture comes together and forms a ball. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead to make sure it is well mixed. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes.
Flatten dough on a lightly floured work surface. Dust the top of the dough with flour and roll it out, dusting with flour and flipping the dough over from time to time, until it is 1/16-inch thick and is the desired diameter.
Generously grease the timpano baking pan with butter and olive oil. Fold the dough in half and then in half again, to form a triangle, and place it in the pan. Open the dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and the sides, draping the extra dough over the sides. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Timpano was historically cooked in enamel wash basins. I hunted around and finally found this 14-inch enamel basin from Kolorful Kitchen.
Bechamel sauce (makes about two cups)
2-1/2 cups milk
1 shallot with 1 bay leaf stuck to it using 1 – 2 whole cloves
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Combine the milk, shallot, and nutmeg in a saucepan over low heat and simmer gently for 15 minutes, uncovered, to infuse the flavor into the milk. Discard the shallot, bay leaf, and cloves.
Meanwhile, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over low heat. Stir in 4 tablespoons all-purposed flour.
Cook uncovered stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula, over medium-low heat until the roux is fragrant but not darkened, 2 – 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and slowly mix in the milk, about 1/2 cup at a time. Turn the heat back on and simmer 8 – 10 minutes. Do not boil. Season with salt and pepper.
Meatballs (make in advance)
3 cups day old bread, cut into 1 inch cubes
1-1/4 lbs ground beef
3 eggs, beaten
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup grated pecorino cheese
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup pine nuts, baked for 8 minutes in a 400 degree oven
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2-1/2 cups basic tomato sauce (3/4 cup tomato paste, 1 cup water, 2 cups tomato sauce cooked together for about ten minutes)
In a shallow bowl, soak the bread cubes in water to cover for a minute or two. Drain the bread cubes and squeeze with your fingers to press out the excess moisture (make sure you do this well). In a large bowl, combine the bread cubes, beef, eggs, garlic, pecorino, parsley, toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper, and mix with your hands to incorporate.
With wet hands, form the mixture into 12-15 meatballs, each smaller than a tennis ball, but larger than a golf ball. In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until almost smoking.
Add the meatballs and, working in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding the pan, cook until deep golden brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook all the meatballs for 30 minutes.
Set aside the meatballs and allow to cool. Save the sauce for another use.
Meat-based tomato sauce (make in advance)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb boneless beef chuck, cut into chunks
fresh ground black pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup dry red wine
2 (28 ounce) cans peeled plum tomatoes, with juice, passed through a food mill (if you don't have a food mill, push the tomatoes through a medium-mesh strainer with a wooden spoon)
1/2 lb mild Italian sausage
1 pinch hot red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon chopped oregano leaves
Warm olive oil in a Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. Brown beef on all sides, about 10 minutes.
Remove from Dutch oven and set aside on a plate. Stir onions and garlic into pot. Reduce heat to low and cook 5 minutes until onions begin to soften.
Add the wine, browned meat chunks, tomatoes, sausages, and pepper flakes and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook 2.5 hours, stirring occasionally and skimming off the fat as necessary. Remove from the heat and remove meat and sausages from sauce. Cover well and save for another meal.
Have salami, provolone, soft-boiled eggs, meatballs, and tomato sauce at room temperature. Toss 6 cups of the drained pasta with 2 cups of the tomato sauce.
Distribute 6 cups of the pasta on the bottom of the timpano. Top with 1 cup salami and 1 cup provolone.
Add 6 soft-boiled eggs and 1 cup meatballs.
Add 3/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese. Pour about 1 cup tomato sauce over these ingredients.
Mix another 6 cups of pasta with the béchamel sauce and pour it over top of the layer of Pecorino Romano and tomato sauce.
Top with 1 cup salami, 1 cup provolone, 6 soft-boiled eggs, 1 cup meatballs, and 1/3 cup Pecorino Romano cheese.
Pour any remaining tomato sauce over these ingredients. Fold the dough over the filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough.
If there's not quite enough to cover the top, take the trimmed dough pieces, form a ball, and roll it out to form a 'lid' to cover.
Bake about 1 hour until lightly browned. Then cover with aluminum foil and bake about 30 minutes until timpano is cooked through and dough is golden brown. Remove from oven and let rest for 30 or more minutes. (Depending on the timing of the evening, you can let it rest for up to an hour or more with the foil on; it stays nice and hot.)
About 20 minutes before serving, grab the timpano pan firmly and invert it onto a serving platter. (We put the platter upside-down on top of the timpano and then inverted it.)
Remove pan and allow timpano to cool for 20 minutes longer. Using a long, sharp knife, cut a circle about 2-3 inches in diameter in the center of the timpano, making sure to cut all the way through to the bottom. Then slice the timpano as you would a pie into individual portions, leaving the center circle as a support for the remaining pieces. Since we were serving 11 people at one time, it helped to have a second person hold together the slices with a spatula to prevent the pieces from falling apart.
Serve with peperonata in agrodolce from FXcuisine.com.