What Is Timpano And How Big Is It Usually?

Until the movie "Big Night" with Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub came along in 1996, few of us stateside — except for perhaps the most ardent of pasta fans — would have heard about a timpano (aka timballo), the over-the-top pasta dish baked in a metal basin before it is flipped over and presented whole. The dish involves layers of different ingredients, from pasta tossed with ragù to various cheeses, boiled eggs, salami, and meatballs, all wrapped up and filling in a crust draped at the bottom of the basin (via The New York Times).

You would have been forgiven for thinking that the extravagant, almost fantastical dish had been made up for the movie, but it wasn't; actor Stanley Tucci, who turned the timpano into an iconic, bucket-list dish for pasta lovers to try at home, reveals in his book "Taste: My Life Through Food," that "The recipe and the tradition of serving it [timpano] on special occasions, particularly Christmas, was brought to America by my father's family. I never remember not having it on Christmas Day, whether we were celebrating at our home or at the home of one of my dad's siblings."

He adds, "It is quite a showstopper, so much so that we chose to feature it in 'Big Night' as the centerpiece of the film's climactic meal."

Where does timpano come from?

The timpano is said to date back to the 19th century, and is said to be the favorite dish of writer Giuseppe di Tomasi di Lampedusa, who consumed his timpano made with the "unborn eggs from the ovary of a chicken." And while the dish is commonly thought to come from southern Italy's Calabria region (via The Chicago Tribune), Saveur's Sarah Copeland says the dish is believed to have been invented in Sicily.

Wherever it originated, timpano actually has many iterations that can be found in countries that sit along the Mediterranean coast. Greece, Malta, and Egypt are among the countries outside of Italy that serve up their own versions of timpano. To the Greeks, timpano is pastitsio, which incorporates ground meat and a bechamel sauce. To Cypriots, the meat is perked up with cinnamon and mint or parsley (per Saveur). Egyptians are said to toss penne pasta with bechamel and layer it with ground meat before topping it with a second layer of pasta and cheese in a "macaronia bechamel" (according to Tara's Multicultural Table).

What goes into a timpano?

While timpano sounds like a labor-intensive dish (fun fact: it is), the different parts of the dish can actually be assembled ahead of time. In an episode of YouTube's "Pasta Grannies," cooks Francesca and Pina begin their timpano by making meatballs, then making a tomato sauce, or ragù. While rolling her meatballs, Francesca explains that timpano is usually served at weddings, and special occasions like those typically need about 33 pounds of timpano to be prepared. From there, the women make the ragù using ground meat, seasonings, and tomato purée. All that, along with boiled eggs, salami, and cheese, are piled on top of one other to construct the dish.

While many timpanos have a pastry layer (Saveur says this is, in fact, what makes the timpano stand out from other baked pasta dishes) the timpano assembled by the Pasta Grannies does not, which would appear to make their recipe slightly easier to make as a result. The grannies also say it is important to cool the timpano properly before tipping the pasta dish over onto a serving dish so that it stays together.

How do you make a timpano?

Stanley Tucci's family timpano doesn't resemble the Pasta Grannies' modest-sized version in the slightest, and we can tell because of the sheer quantity of the ingredients needed to put the Tucci family masterpiece together. A recipe that feeds 12 to 16 persons as written out in his book, calls for 1.3 kilos — or nearly 3 pounds — of ziti pasta (handmade works best), plus 1.7 pounds each of salami and provolone cheese, 12 hard boiled eggs, 100 grams (or just under a quarter pound) of Pecorino Romano, all wrapped in a pastry that needs about a pound of flour to make. The ziti is tossed in a head-turning quantity of ragù (Tucci advises readers to double up on the recipe) which already has about 4.4 pounds of meat altogether, as well as close to 9 pounds worth of canned whole plum tomatoes. 

To get an idea of the size of the cooking pan the Tuccis need for their family timpano, we turn to the movie "Big Night" (via YouTube), where Tony Shalhoub's character Primo describes the dish as "shaped like a drum, like a timpani drum," cooked in what looks like a round, metal basin big enough to hold about 15 quarts worth of water — or say, 12.5 pounds worth of meat and pasta.