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The Full Effect : No One Goes Hungry When Sampling 6 Very Individual Timpani

November 02, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every few years a great food movie comes along, a "Babette's Feast," a "Like Water for Chocolate" and this year's "Big Night."

"Big Night" is the story of two immigrant Italian brothers who try to save their restaurant by preparing a blowout banquet for an anticipated appearance by jazz great Louis Prima. But long after the plot has been forgotten, we will remember this food.

The brothers put together a memorable array of dishes, the showpiece being a gorgeous pasta-filled drum called timpano. Needless to say, everyone walks out of this movie dreaming of where to eat one. This is no mean feat: Timpano isn't something you just walk into your local neighborhood trattoria and order.

Timpano is the Italian word for drum, and the truth is that the dish is something of a royal pain to prepare. Think of it as a pot of macaroni and cheese gone berserk, a gaudy creation stuffed with anything from eggs to meatballs to the kitchen sink, something well beyond the pale of anything ever brought to a church supper.

The dish's detractors might say this isn't Italian food at all. One chef from northern Italy I spoke with simply refused to take timpano seriously, dismissing the idea by saying, "That's not Italian, it's Arab cooking for heaven's sake."

In fact, he wasn't far wrong. Timpano is clearly a southern Italian dish, common to regions such as Sicily and Calabria, where Moorish influences have long been a part of local cooking traditions. The basic idea is to take pasta and fillings of the chef's choosing and bind everything together in one enormous, drum-shaped crust.

An Italian might eat his timpano after a light pasta course because though the main component inside one is a type of pasta, this is really a secondo, or main dish.

When done right, a timpano elicits various oohs, ahhs, marrones and ohmigahds. It also is wondrously delicious and, in most cases, dangerously filling to the point that a second helping is well past the pain threshold.

Bearing that in mind, we asked six Orange County cooking personalities to prepare their versions of this larger-than-life dish. Like Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author," this group--Luci Luhan of What's Cooking, Carlito Jocson of Zov's Bistro, Paulo Pestarino of Issay, Vittorio Romeo of Romeo Cucina, Pietro Cefalu of Mangia Mangia and Anthony Story of Egan House--all came to the party with a very different reality.

On Thursday, the timpani were brought to The Times' Orange County offices and tasted by a steadfast group including myself and several hungry Calendar staffers. It is a safe guess that I was the only one who had dinner that evening, and only then because of professional obligations.

What we ate was delicious, but what this event really reinforced for me was the infinite imagination of the cook. All six dishes were absolutely different, and each demonstrated either the personality of the chef or the soul of a region in Italy.

Closest to my heart, perhaps, was the one produced by Cefalu of Mangia Mangia because it reminded me of food I ate as a child in Boston's North End. The crust may have been ever-so-slightly rubbery, but the filling--tube-shaped ziti pasta, tiny meatballs called polpettini, fresh peas, tomato sauce and halved hard-boiled eggs--tasted exactly as if someone's grandmother had made it. It also came the closest to looking like the dish in the film. Cefalu, like the imaginary brothers in "Big Night," is a native of Sicily.

The five brothers who own Romeo Cucina in Laguna Beach are also southern Italian, hailing from Calabria, the toe in the boot of Italy's peninsula. The restaurant actually has timballino casa Romeo (which takes its name from another type of Italian cooking vessel but is essentially the same as a timpano) on its regular menu, for $7.50 per person, and they brought one in for our tasting. This was the only vegetarian timpano we tried, and it had a creamy filling of rigatoni, sun-dried tomato, eggplant, porcini mushrooms and a Bechamel sauce.

From the opposite end of Italy, there was the timpano from Issay's Pestarino. This chef, from Italy's Piedmont region near the French Alps, fashioned a beautifully bronzed cylinder with the meat from osso buco veal shank, cotecchino, a northern Italian sausage, fontina cheese and a tube-shaped pasta, layering the ingredients with pasta sheets inside the crust.

Chef Story from Egan House came up with a new-age pastry drum he called Chino Farms Vegetable Timballo, with a filling of Chino Farms eggplant and tomato, Maine lobster and watercress ravioli, all topped with corn, figs, shallot cream, fontina cheese and chanterelle mushrooms.

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