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Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 12:01 am

Cabin fever crazy

Timballo is made with a casing of fresh pasta filled with layers of pasta, hardboiled eggs, cheeses, meatballs, sausages and meat sauce.
PHOTO BY MBARRIEAU VIA WIKIPEDIA.ORG

 

As I write this, the temperature is minus 1 degree. But the forecast high for Feb. 13, the day this Illinois Times comes out, is 41 degrees. That’s the warmest it will have been for ages, and first day of a warming trend. Finally!

Usually I enjoy winter, though as winter fades, signs of spring are always welcome. But this winter has been too much. Too many extended periods of bone-chilling temperatures. Too much snow and ice. Too many days stuck inside.

When I say stuck, I really mean stuck. I’m recovering from a broken leg that postponed knee surgery scheduled for early November. Since my unstable knee was responsible for the broken leg, I’ve been virtually housebound for almost four months, especially since the horrible weather has made it too risky to venture out. Even a trip to the doctor is a special occasion these days. With luck (aka, I don’t fall again), I’ll get my new knee later this month.

But there have been compensations. The harsh weather has brought an especially glorious gathering of birds around the feeders. I’ve seen as many as 20 male cardinals at once, clustered around the feeders or waiting their turn on nearby branches along with their mates and a host of blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, tufted titmice and purple finches and more. They’re the first things I see every morning from my hospital bed in our family room.

And I give thanks daily for my husband, Peter. He has uncomplainingly taken on my regular household tasks while taking wonderful care of me.

I’ve also had lots of reading and movie-watching time. Fortunately, I’m happy to reread or re-watch old friends. And for me, there’s no better old friend than Big Night. It’s my favorite food film, one I never tire of seeing. Big Night’s food plays a starring role equal to that of any of the actors. And the actors, as well as the story, are wonderful. If I could only see one film for the rest of my life, it would probably be Big Night. The late, great Roger Ebert said about Big Night: “It is about food not as a subject but as a language – the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.”

Made in 1996, Big Night is the story of two Italian brothers who have immigrated to a town on New Jersey’s shoreline in the 1950s to open a restaurant. The eldest, known only as Primo, is a brilliant chef. The younger, Secondo, is the manager/maitre d’ and enthralled by America, “the land of opportunity.” Primo is less so, not least because of Americans’ ignorance and lack of appreciation for authentic Italian cuisine. “She is a Philistine,” he mutters when a woman assumes that a side of spaghetti and meatballs will accompany her risotto (rice) entrée.

Primo’s uncompromising refusal to cater to American tastes attracts few customers, and the little restaurant is losing money fast. When the bank threatens to foreclose, Secondo asks Pascal, the Italian owner of a popular steakhouse/red sauce joint for a loan. Pascal refuses, but says he’ll do something better: arrange for celebrity jazz singer Louis Prima and his band to dine at the brothers’ restaurant. The resultant publicity will be their salvation.

Secondo tells Primo that the famous bandleader and his crew are coming, but not who is behind the plan. Primo despises Pascal and his restaurant: “Do you know what goes on there?” he asks Secondo. “Rape! Rape! It’s the rape of cuisine!”

As Primo prepares a magnificent feast for their big night, Secondo invites friends and a newspaper reporter. He purchases supplies, but has time to test drive a new car he can’t afford and, unbeknown to his girlfriend who is helping Primo in the kitchen, for a rendezvous with Pascal’s mistress.

For those who haven’t seen Big Night, I won’t give away the rest of the plot. I’ll just say that the phenomenal procession of dishes that emerge from Primo’s kitchen will amaze viewers as much as the film’s diners. Primo and Secondo’s bonds of brotherhood both bind and chafe. Though that bond is a central theme throughout Big Night, it’s most perfectly illustrated in the final scene, though not a word is spoken.

Stanley Tucci, who plays Secondo, also wrote the script and directed. He’s starred in many films, including Julie and Julia, in which he plays Julia Child’s sophisticated, bon vivant husband, Paul. Meryl Streep received deservedly high praise for her almost uncanny portrayal of Julia Child, but Tucci had an equally outstanding performance as Paul. Tony Shalhoub (who starred in the television show “Monk”) is the uncompromising Primo.

Minnie Driver and luscious Isabella Rossellini play, respectively, the girlfriend and the mistress; Ian Holm is the wily Pascal.

After I first saw Big Night, I began searching for the recipe for timballo, the elaborate creation that is the feast’s centerpiece. “It’s a secret recipe,” one guest murmurs to another.

It definitely was a secret. Over the years I’ve made several unsuccessful attempts to find it. Sometimes food-centric movies credit a consulting chef who prepared the food, but not Big Night. Oh, there were recipes out there for timpano, and even more for a similar dish, timballo (both names mean “drum”), but none looked exactly like Big Night’s version.

I’d given up long ago trying to find an exact replica, but while writing this, I stumbled upon one that’s the closest I’ve seen. The recipe is from Camille Becerra and can be found on the blog Food52.com. I haven’t tried it – that will have to wait for my new knee – but it has all the components of Big Night’s timballo. Fresh sheets of pasta line a large pot (Primo uses an enameled wash basin), that’s filled with layers of handmade tubular pasta (Becerra uses store-bought dried pasta, then fills each small tube with a ricotta-based filling), hardboiled eggs, cheeses, meatballs, sausages and meat sauce.

If you are interested in finding out more about timpano, there’s an interesting and heartwarming short video on the magazine Bon Appetit’s website. It features Matt Abdoo, and his 90-year-old grandmother, Valerie Mancuso. Abdoo is chef di cucina at Del Posto, Mario Batali’s most upscale restaurant in New York City. The video has scenes of Abdoo watching while Mancuso prepares her timpano in her home kitchen, interspersed with footage of Abdoo creating one at Del Posto. It can be found at http://www.bonappetit.com/people/chefs/article/how-to-make-timpano-the-italian-grandmother-way.

If you watch Big Night, read the recipe or see the video, you’ll know that timpano – whatever the version – will never be listed as “quick and easy.” As Becerra says, “This recipe is certainly not for the faint of heart: Your day will be full of tension as you dedicate yourself to making sure your timpano does not get stuck, will not collapse, will look beautiful and will taste delicious. I hope you will be adventurous, though – why not have a big night of your own?”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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