Viola Buitoni's Big Night Timpano

Viola Buitoni's Big Night Timpano
Molly De Coudreaux

A TIMPANO, OR timballo, as it was called in the bustling kitchen of Viola Buitoni’s childhood home in Perugia, Italy, is a drum-shaped feat of culinary bravura, a peer- less pasta dish in which noodles, sauce, cheese, and tiny meatballs are layered in a dough-lined bowl and then baked until the pastry is golden and flaky.

Most Americans know this dish from its star turn in the movie Big Night, though versions of it graced the aristocratic tables of southern Italy long before its 1996 film debut. There are many versions of timpanos, each one shaped and changed by the lexicon of family, place, culture, and season. Viola, a direct descendant of the famed Buitoni pasta and chocolate family, makes this showstopper to mark very special occasions.

A timpano is not hard to prepare, but because its components must be prepared and cooked separately, it is time-intensive. Fortunately, the pasta frolla, mushroom sauce, and meatballs can be prepared in advance of assembly and serving. Should you decide to make your timpano all in one go, the steps in the recipe are arranged in the most efficient order to make the most of your time in the kitchen.

Your efforts will be amply rewarded. When the finished dish is turned out of its mold (with all of the drama that accompanies it), your guests will be astounded!


For the mushroom sauce:

  • ½ oz (½ cup) dried porcini mushrooms
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 1 ½ lbs assorted fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 fresh thyme sprigs
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 oz prosciutto, finely diced
  • ½ cup finely diced yellow onion
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 small celery rib, finely diced
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • 1 28-oz can whole plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste

For the meatballs: 

  • 1 lb ground beef (85 percent lean)
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 2 to 3 tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 ½ tsp finely grated orange zest
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon or nutmeg
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

For the pasta frolla:

  • 4 ⅓ cups (540 g) all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into Tbsp, at room temperature
  • 8 large egg yolks

For assembly:

  • ¾ lb rigatoni, penne, or other tubular pasta
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 8 oz)
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature, for the bowl
  • ½ cup fine dried bread crumbs
  • 6 oz thinly sliced (but not paper-thin) prosciutto
  • 1 lb fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced, or whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups shredded fresh Montasio/Asiago cheese (about 8 oz)
  • 6 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving


Make the mushroom sauce:

  1. Combine the dried mushrooms and hot water in a small bowl and set aside while you are preparing the other ingredients.
  2. Put the fresh mushrooms in a large skillet, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, cover, and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they have released their liquid, about 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced and the mushrooms are tender, 7 to 10 minutes. (The water content of different mushroom varieties varies, so if the mushrooms are not releasing enough liquid and are beginning to stick, add a few tablespoons of water to aid the cooking.) Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl, then wipe the skillet clean with paper towels.
  3. Add the oil, thyme, and bay leaves to the skillet and place over medium-high heat until the oil begins to shimmer slightly. Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring, until it begins to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and a generous pinch of salt, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables turn golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the cold water and continue cooking, stirring often, until the mixture is tender, aromatic, and slightly caramelized, 10 to 15 minutes longer. You are making a serious soffritto (traditional aromatic mix of finely cut vegetables), which takes time, so do not rush this step.
  4. Meanwhile, lift the porcini from their soaking water and coarsely chop them. Strain the soaking water through a fine-mesh sieve (or a coffee filter), leaving the grit behind in the bowl. Add the mushrooms and the strained soaking water to the bowl holding the cooked fresh mushrooms. Pour the tomatoes and their juice into a separate bowl and crush them with your hands.
  5. When the soffritto is ready, add the mushroom mixture and increase the heat to medium. When the liquid begins to simmer, stir in the crushed tomatoes and their juice and the tomato paste and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, until the sauce is thick and has turned a maroon red, about 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper, then remove from the heat and let cool completely.

Make the meatballs:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the beef, pork, salt, and pepper and mix well. Add the cheese, parsley, egg, orange zest, and cinnamon and mix until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed.
  2. Line two half sheet pans with parchment paper and sprinkle half of the four over each lined pan. Dampen your hands with water, then roll the meat mixture between your palms into tiny meatballs, each about the size of your thumbnail. As each ball is shaped, transfer it to a floured pan. Keep your hands damp as you work to prevent the meat from sticking to them.
  3. When all of the meatballs have been formed and are on the pans, tilt the pans back and forth and from side to side so the four lightly coats the meatballs on all sides. The four will aid the browning and absorb excess moisture.
  4. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it begins to shimmer but is not yet smoking. Working in batches, add the meatballs to the pan, forming a loose layer, and fry them until golden, 4 to 5 minutes. As the meatballs cook, shake and tilt the pan often so the whole surface of each meatball is evenly browned. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a clean sheet pan, plater, or baking dish. Repeat until all of the meatballs have been fried, adding more oil to the pan as needed to prevent sticking. Let the meatballs cool to room temperature.

Make the pasta folla:

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the four, sugar, and salt.
  2. Add the butter and egg yolks and, using a pastry cuter or your fingers, cut and crumble the butter into the dry ingredients until the dough gathers into a mass. The dough will start to appear powdery and then crumbly. As you keep working the dough, the crumbs will become larger. Press the dough into a rough ball, then transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough (it will be crumbly at first but will come together as you work) just enough that it holds together and is smooth and homogeneous. Form the dough into a thick disk, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Assemble the timpano:

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until very al dente, about 4 minutes. (Remember, the pasta is going to cook more when it is baked, so it should be only barely cooked here.) Drain, rinse under cold running water to halt the cooking, then drain again. Transfer to a large bowl and add 11/2 cups of the cream, 1 cup of the Parmigiano, the egg yolks, and two-thirds (about 21/2 cups) of the mushroom sauce and stir to mix well. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Generously butter a stainless-steel bowl 12 to 14 inches in diameter and 4 to 6 inches deep (5- to 6-quart capacity), then coat evenly with the bread crumbs. Turn the bowl upside down over the sink and tap the side to shake of the excess bread crumbs. Alternatively, have ready a large angel food cake pan, 10 to 12 inches in diameter.
  3. Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper. Have ready a second sheet of parchment paper. Cut of one-fourth of the dough, shape it into a disk, rewrap in plastic wrap, and return to the refrigerator. On a lightly floured work surface, shape the larger piece of dough into a disk. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll it out into a circle about 16 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Carefully transfer the dough round, folding it as needed to ft, to the lined sheet pan. Clean the work surface, dust again lightly with four, and then roll out the smaller piece of dough into a circle 12 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Transfer it to the sheet of parchment and stack it on top of the first circle of dough. Transfer to the refrigerator and refrigerate for about 15 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, in a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer), beat the egg whites on high speed until stiff peaks form. Whisk one-fourth of the whipped whites into the pasta mixture to loosen it, then gently fold in the remaining whites, working from the top to the bottom of the bowl in a circling motion and being mindful not to deflate the whites.
  5. Remove the pasta frolla from the refrigerator. Lift of the parchment with the smaller circle and return it to the refrigerator. If using the crumb-coated bowl as a mold, with a sharp knife, cut the larger circle into wide triangles (like you would cut a pizza).
  6. Arrange the triangles in a single layer in the bowl, with the points meeting in the center of the bottom and the wide ends overhanging the rim of the bowl. Pinch the edges of the triangles together to create a seamless lining. If using the angel food cake pan, drape the uncut large circle in the pan, gently pressing it against the sides, the bottom, and the center tube and allowing the excess to overhang the rim. Trim away the dough covering the top of the tube.
  7. Line the bottom and sides of the dough layer with a layer of prosciutto (see image, page 106). Add a 1-inch-deep layer of the pasta mixture to the bottom of the bowl.
  8. Top the pasta with a layer of mozzarella, followed by a layer of meatballs, a layer of the Montasio, one-third of the remaining Parmigiano, and a few butter cubes. Lift the mold about 2 inches of the work surface and then drop it onto the surface. Repeat this three or four times, which will help compact the ingredients and help the timpano hold together when sliced.
  9. Continue layering the prosciutto, pasta mixture, mozzarella, meatballs, Montasio, Parmigiano, and butter, compacting the timpano after each set of layers and ending with a layer of prosciutto (You should get two or three sets of layers, depending on the depth of the mold you are using. Adjust the amount of the ingredients used for each layer as needed.)
  10. Trim away any excess dough from around the edge of the mold, leaving a small, even overhang, then brush the overhang with a little water. Remove the smaller dough circle from the refrigerator and place it on top of the timpano, tucking the edges into the rim and then folding over the overhang and pinching or fluting the edges together to seal. (If using an angel food cake pan, trim around the tube as needed.) Place the mold on a half sheet pan.
  11. Bake until the crust is golden and flaky, 1 to 11/4 hours. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. If using a bowl as the mold, invert a round serving plater on top of the timpano. Wearing oven mitts, and holding the bowl and the plater securely, invert them together in one swift motion and then carefully lift of the bowl. If using an angel food cake pan, use the tube to lift the timpano out of the pan, then invert the timpano onto a plater and gently lif the tube and base to remove it. Let the timpano rest for 10 minutes.
  12. Just before serving, in a small saucepan, combine the reserved mushroom sauce with the remaining 1/2 cup cream and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring often.
  13. Transfer to a serving bowl. Slice the timpano into wedges and top each serving with a spoonful of the sauce.
  14. Serve immediately, with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on the side.

The pasta frolla can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month. The mushroom sauce can be refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 1 month. The cooked meatballs can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks. Thaw the frozen components overnight in the refrigerator before using.

The mushroom sauce may be a bit thin after thawing. Bring it to a simmer over low heat and cook, whisking often, until it thickens, about 15 minutes, taking care it does not burn.

The pasta frolla can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month. The mushroom sauce can be refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 1 month. The cooked meatballs can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks. Thaw the frozen components overnight in the refrigerator before using.

The mushroom sauce may be a bit thin after thawing. Bring it to a simmer over low heat and cook, whisking often, until it thickens, about 15 minutes, taking care it does not burn.

From Feed Your People by Leslie Jonath with 18 Reasons (powerHouse Books). Copyright © 2018. Photographs by Molly De Coudreaux.

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