Many of us have thrown off that comforting blanket of tradition and familiarity to ask the big question: How did turkey—a meat that is easily dried out and often described as “flavorless”—become the pièce de résistance for what is meant to be the most gluttonous culinary event of the holiday season? I’m not saying turkey can’t be delicious if cooked correctly, but it will always taste like turkey, and options are a wonderful thing. Italian American families have an ideal workaround for this seasonal sameness predicament: a pan of lasagna. At their discretion, your guests can eat from it as a side dish or take a heaping main portion. But this year, we’re graduating from lasagna to the pasta entree that is a true show-stopper, at least in Hollywood: Timpano.
The creation and unveiling of timpano includes every ingredient necessary for a vivacious Thanksgiving love fest—the teamwork of the prep, the drama of the flip, the oohs and ahhs of the reveal. This is a dish to bond and fawn over. The beauty of timpano is that you don’t have to give up your family’s recipes. The timpano I made includes my Grandma Tootsie’s meatballs and sauce, my Aunt Carmella’s spinach pie, and my Uncle Tony’s pizza rustica. Am I aware of how much that sounds like a casting call for The Sopranos? Indeed I am.
What is timpano?
To quote Tony Shalhoub’s character from the 1996 food-fest classic Big Night, “Timpano is a pasta with a special crust… And the inside? The most important things in the world.” In Italy, where it’s more commonly referred to as “timballo,” a dome-shaped shell made of pasta, rice, or eggplant is filled with an elegant layering of pasta, meat, cheese, and vegetables that varies from region to region. Stanley Tucci’s much-discussed family recipe includes his family’s ragu, meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, Genoa salami, and pasta. I’ve put my own family’s spin on it by adding a layer of sautéed spinach usually found in Aunt Carmella’s spinach pie, and replacing the hard boiled eggs with pizza rustica filling—a mixture of diced Italian deli meat and cheese bound together with egg, similar to a quiche.
It is not an easy meal to make by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not so difficult if you plan it out ahead of time and recruit some willing participants. This isn’t just one entree, but a covenant of Italian dishes that have vowed to coexist together beneath the veil of a pasta shell for your enjoyment. Each layer requires its own recipe and set of hands, culminating in a beautifully terrifying moment of suspense as someone physically inverts the dish onto its base before cutting it open. The timpano is best unveiled in front of an audience of hungry guests, where your hard work will be deeply rewarded with much deserved praise.
The big plan
Making a timpano takes time, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. My biggest piece of advice is to plan ahead. The majority of each piece of the timpano puzzle can be made one to four days in advance before the dish is fully assembled and baked. The pizza rustica filling and sauteed spinach can be made and refrigerated up to four days in advance before baking. Uncooked meatballs can be made, shaped, and stored in the refrigerator for up to a day. The pasta dough can also be refrigerated for up to a day—though I’d recommend making it the day of, to prevent it from becoming too stiff and hard to roll out.
Splitting up the tasks and checking them off in the days leading up to Thanksgiving will erase a lot of the anxiety. And afterward, when everyone is able to come together for the assembly and each ingredient is layered into the pasta shell, there will be a stressful moment when you’ll think your many, beautiful layers won’t be able to fit within. But don’t sweat it: They will fit.
For the person tasked with the pizza rustica filling:
Ingredients (Note: no additional salt is necessary):
- 1/4 pound aged provolone, cubed to ¼ of an inch
- 1/4 pound pepperoni, cubed to ¼ of an inch
- 1/4 pound Genoa salami, cubed to ¼ of an inch
- 1/4 pound ham, cubed to ¼ of an inch
- 1/8 pound prosciutto, cubed to ¼ of an inch
- 7 ounces low-moisture shredded mozzarella
- 1 pound ricotta
- 10 large eggs, whisked (Note: A lot of recipes for pizza rustica favor more ricotta and fewer eggs, but you’re going to want the additional eggs here to help create a solid binding layer for the bottom of the timpano.)
- ½ teaspoon pepper
I hope you’re excited to snack on some cured meats and cheeses, because you absolutely deserve to sneak some during prep. My advice to you when you’re buying the meat is to ask your butcher to cut it into slices 1/4-inch thick. This will make your job so much easier, because the rest of what you’ll be doing is dicing and mixing. Once you’ve finished dicing the salami, prosciutto, ham, pepperoni, and provolone into quarter-inch cubes, mix your meat and cheeses together in a bowl with 10 whisked eggs and pepper. (If you’re doing this ahead of time, go ahead and cover and refrigerate.)
For the person tasked with meatballs and sauce
For the meatballs (Feel free to double this if you’re a meatball-loving family.):
- 1 pound ground beef
- ½ pound ground pork
- ½ pound ground veal
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup bread crumbs soaked in ½ cup milk for a few minutes
- ½ cup parmesan
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
For the sauce:
- 2 28-ounce jars of San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 14-ounce jar of passata or tomato puree
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ yellow onion, diced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Red pepper flakes
- 3 teaspoons olive oil
- Fresh basil
One of many secrets to moist, tender meatballs is milk, so start by soaking your breadcrumbs in it. Combine your ground beef, pork, and veal in a large bowl with eggs, parmesan cheese, minced garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. Take off those rings and watches and get in there with your hands. Once everything is combined, add the moistened breadcrumbs and mix them in. Roll the mixture into evenly portioned, 1- to 1-½ inch balls. (If you’re doing this in advance, you can refrigerate the raw meatballs for up to a day.)
If you’re ready to make your sauce, continue on to the next step by browning those meatballs. Heat a cast iron skillet or nonstick pan until it’s piping hot, then add oil. Brown your meatballs on all sides, rotating them often. You’re most likely going to need to do this in three or four batches to avoid crowding the skillet.
To make the sauce, heat oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the diced onion, red pepper flake, and any additional herbs and cook until the onion is translucent. Throw in your minced garlic and cook until fragrant. Stir in the San Marzano tomatoes, passata or tomato purée, and a cup of water, and season with salt. Lower the browned meatballs into your marinara and simmer for 1 hour.
For the person tasked with sauteéd spinach
Sautéed spinach ingredients:
- 4 bunches of spinach (bags work fine)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt, but continue to taste and season if it needs more
- 1 pinch ground nutmeg
- Zest of half a lemon
- Red pepper flakes
Be thankful, my friend: You have the simplest task. Rinse your spinach and discard any tough stems. Heat up the biggest skillet you own and add a giant glug of olive oil. Toss in your minced garlic and red pepper flakes to taste. Go ahead and add the spinach. Feel free to add in batches, waiting until it begins to wilt to toss in more. Cook over high heat, stirring until the spinach has completely wilted. Stir in salt and pepper to taste, and add a pinch of ground nutmeg, and lemon zest. Next, the most important step: Squeeze the excess moisture out of your beautifully wilted spinach. Transfer to a strainer and push down with a wooden spoon until you’ve removed as much excess liquid as you possibly can.
For the person tasked with the crust
- 4 cups flour (preferably 00)
- 4 eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons olive oil
- 3 teaspoons water
This task should (ideally) go to the strongest person in the room, but remember: If Pasta Grannies can do it, so can you. Form the flour into a mound, digging out a crater for the eggs, olive oil, and salt. Place the wet ingredients and salt in the flour divot and beat with a fork until the ingredients slowly blend together and form a shaggy dough, adding additional tablespoons of water, one at a time, if needed to fully incorporate all of the flour. Kneed for 10 minutes until the dough is smooth but not tacky. Cover and allow it to rest for half an hour. Afterward, roll out the dough on a floured surface and shape it into a large circle, about 1/16-inch thick and wide enough in diameter to fit your dutch oven with about eight inches of dough hanging around the sides (approximately 28 inches for a five-quart dutch oven). Don’t be discouraged if this takes some time. The dough might feel tough and spring back a bit, which is normal.
Put it all together
In addition to the ingredients listed in each of the sections above, you will also need the following items and ingredients for the assembly process:
- 7 ounces low-moisture mozzarella
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella
- 2 pounds ziti, cooked to half the amount of their instructed cooking time
- A dutch oven or enamel timpano dish
- Rolling pin
- Large cutting board
It’s time. Preheat your oven to 350℉ and gather your squad. Coat the interior of your dutch oven with a healthy combination of butter and olive oil, because the last thing we want is for your beautiful creation to get stuck. Unroll the pasta sheet into the dutch oven, gently pressing it to the edges and ensuring there is enough to cover the fillings at the top. Begin by filling the timpano with a layer of pasta, lining them up in rows followed by a loose layer of meatballs. Then add a cup of sauce and nestle freshly torn mozzarella between your loosely laid out meatballs, followed by a layer of half of the low-moisture shredded mozzarella. Repeat this step to create another layer. Make sure you’re filling as much space as possible. Spread out your sautéed spinach in a uniform layer, and don’t be afraid to pat it down and ensure that it’s nice and even. Finish up with a final layer of pizza rustica filling. Fold the excess dough over the top from all sides, making sure that there are no open spaces for ingredients to leak out.
Bake for 45 minutes, uncovered, until a beautifully brown crust forms. Then bake, covered, for another half hour or until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees. It will be endlessly tempting to cut it open immediately upon removal from the oven, but it is vital that you let it rest for an hour.
Now you’re ready. Appoint a trusted soul to invert your timpano onto a large cutting board in front of your adoring crowd of hungry spectators. Let it rest for about 20 more minutes so the ingredients have time to settle while it sits, looking ever so tempting—like a mouthwatering centerpiece—before slicing into it and basking in your triumph.