Movies inspire food, or does the food inspire the movie?

How many times have you seen an interesting dish served in a movie or on a tv show and then decided you needed to try it for yourself?

I was recently contacted by Sue, one of the ladies in a private “Let’s Go Cook Italian” group from a few years ago. This group of friends is lovingly called “The Runaway Wives Club.” For many years Sue and her friends would “runaway” on an annual girls trip.

It seems Sue recently saw a movie and a little known Italian dish had a feature role. Sue is now on a mission to gather the “Runaway Wives” and have me teach them to make Timballo. I’m game.

The 1996 movie, “Big Night”, takes place in the 1950s and is about brothers, brothers, Italian immigrants, who open a restaurant in the U.S. Primo is the talented chef, while brother Secondo is the slick promoter. The restaurant is struggling until one big night — I’ll stop here, so as not to spoil the fun. Let’s just say, the star of the movie seems to be the one and only, Timballo.

It’s probable that you have never heard of or enjoyed Timballo. Mostly made and enjoyed in Italian family homes, it’s rarely found in restaurants, unless they are having a “Big Night” event.

To prepare for large groups it could require an army of folks in the kitchen.

Before we continue, one clarification, in the movie, the Timballo is called “Timpano”. Why? I’m not sure, but then again, it’s the movies. I’ve also heard it called “bomba” (bomb) in Emilia Romagna.

Prior to reaching stardom in “Big Night”, Timballo made an earlier appearance in a 1963 Burt Lancaster film, “The Leopard.”

This pasta production, in it’s simplest form, is a casserole, but a casserole suitable for a festive dinner party. Pasta, rice or even potatoes are bound with eggs and or cheese, which create an interesting crust and is filled with a variety of savory ingredients, sauces, some vegetables and you have the beginning of a dish from a bygone era.

This dish can be traced back to the Renaissance and was served at the wedding supper of one of the Medici daughters.

Depending on what region of Italy the Timballo creator comes from, you might find sliced ham, or chicken livers. Maybe even truffles. Almost always with an aromatic meat sauce included.

Some Italians have a special dome to use for baking, but we can easily us a spring form pan. These make it easy to keep the shape when you remove from the form to slice.

I think Sue has the right idea. Gather together a group of friends and make this a team effort. Somebody in charge of the meat sauce, another in charge of the bechamel, and others to form meatballs, if you want to make this version.

No matter which regional recipe you choose to try, the trick is in making sure all of your ingredients are mixed well. It’s really important to stir and toss well to evenly distribute all the flavors and textures. If you don’t take the time to be sure you’ve thoroughly incorporated all of the ingredients, you could have sections of the Timballo that are blah and without enough flavor.

If you choose to take a few shortcuts, I won’t tell. Using a great quality commercially created red sauce (Michael’s of Brooklyn), bechamel or meatballs can save you some time.

Another idea, prepare your ragu in advance and keep refrigerated or frozen until needed.

The important thing to remember is that you will be creating a striking, scrumptious peak of perfectly prepared pasta, filled with tender meatballs, egg, salami, ragu all muddled together and baked to perfection. Another important thing to remember is that in Italian the word “pasta” literally means dough. So you can have pasta that is noodles, pasta that is for bread or pasta that is for a pie crust.

You will get the most impressive finished Timballo if you invest in a dome baking pan. Our local Shackfords should have these, or be able to order for you. They aren’t very expensive.

Try to enjoy slowly, savoring every flavor corner. There will be compliments to the chef.

Timballo Classico Maccheroni

Serves 8

Mini Meatballs:

1/2 lb. mixture ground veal, beef and pork

1 tsp. minced fresh parsley

1 tsp. fresh sage (or 1/4 tsp. dried)

salt and pepper to taste

1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil (Grove 45)

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 Tbsp. Marsala wine

In mixing bowl, combine the ground meats, herbs, salt, pepper and Marsala. Shape mixture into mini meatballs, approx. the size of a garbanzo bean. Set aside.

Heat medium fry pan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and butter. Heat. Add meatballs and brown evenly. Drain on paper towel. Meatballs can be made in advance.


Unsalted butter for baking pan

3 Tbsp. unseasoned bread crumbs

4 cups Bolognese sauce (recipe available upon request)

1 16 oz. can tomato puree

1 cup mushrooms, sliced

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 lbs. large macaroni (or penne)

2 eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 lb. shredded mozzarella

6 slices prosciutto, torn into shreds

Mini meatballs

3 hard boiled eggs, cut into thick round slices

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Heavily butter a 10-inch spring form pan. Dust evenly with bread crumbs. Set aside.

Add tomato puree to Bolognese sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce heat slightly and simmer 20 minutes, until mixture is reduced slightly.

While sauce is simmering, saute sliced mushroom in 2 Tbsp. olive oil until tender and slightly golden.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Cook al dente. Don’t overcook. (Pasta continues cooking during baking process.) Drain well. Do not rinse.

Return pasta to the pot it was cooked in. Add beaten eggs, fold in gently. Add 4 ladles of Bolognese, fold again. Add 1/2 cup grated cheese. Fold again. Be sure all pasta is well coated.

In baking pan add one thin layer of pasta mixture. Sprinkle evenly with 2 Tbsp. grated cheese, 1/3 mozzarella, 1/3 prosciutto, 1/3 mushrooms, 1/3 of meatballs and 1 of the sliced eggs.

Cover with 2 ladles of sauce. Repeat layering. Finish with pasta, sauce and grated cheese. Dust the top with bread crumbs and dot evenly with butter.

Bake 45 minutes in center oven, until top is lightly crusty. Cool 15 minutes. Loosen sides by using a butter knife or spatula. Unmold. Sprinkle with grated cheese and serve.

Casseruola di spaghetti di Timballo

Serves 4

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (Grove 45)

16 oz. pkg. spaghetti (not angel hair or vermicelli)

24 oz. marinara sauce (recipe available upon request)

3—4 Italian sausages, removed from casing and cooked until pink is gone

1 large red onion, coarsely chopped

8 oz. spicy salami, diced

1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped

6 oz. fresh mushrooms, chopped

4 oz. black olives, sliced

1 Tbsp. capers

3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

2 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Brush olive oil over the bottom and sides of your baking form.

Bring large pot of unsalted water to boil. Cook pasta per package directions. Pasta should be al dente. It will continue to cook during baking.

Drain pasta well. Do not rinse. Mix pasta, marinara, sausage, onion, salami, peppers, mushrooms and olives together in large bowl or the pasta pot.

Pour ingredients into baking form. Top evenly with mozzarella and sprinkle evenly with Parmesan.

Bake until bubbly and cheesy top is lightly golden. Approx. 30 minutes.

Unmold and serve immediately.

Timballo con Risso

Serves 8


6 large ripe tomatoes

1/4 cup olive oil

3 large whole cloves fresh garlic, peeled

6 fresh basil leaves

Pinch of sugar

3 cups water

Cut an “X” across the round end of the tomatoes. Not too deep a cut. Just break the skin. Drop into large pot of rapidly boiling water and simmer for 1 minute or less, until you see the skin of the “X” begin to pop open. Remove carefully and drop into large bowl ice water to stop cooking process.

Peel skin, cut into quarters and scoop out center seed section, keeping only the meaty part of the tomato.

Put 1/4 cup olive oil into skillet. Place garlic cloves into cold oil. Heat oil and cook until cloves are pale yellow. Remove pan from heat and add tomato pieces. Return pan to stove and add basil leaves, cooking until tomatoes soften. Add 2 cups warm water and pinch of sugar. Simmer until mixture reduces and thickens. Add remaining water and simmer until mixture reduces again. Remove garlic cloves. Hint: don’t throw away the cloves, save to spread on bruschetta.


1/2 stick unsalted butter

5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 small red onion, minced

2 1/4 cups Arborio rice

3/4 cup white wine

3 1/2 cups of stock (chicken or vegetable)

6 oz. finely grated parmesan cheese

12 oz. mozzarella fresca

16 oz. frozen spinach, cooked and all moisture squeezed out

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat 3 tbsp. of olive oil and butter in fry pan. Saute onion until soft. Add rice. Cook rice for 3-5 minutes until it begins to crackle. Add wine. Cook for 3 minutes to allow wine to reduce.

Add tomato sauce and 2 1/2 cups stock. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly until rice is firm and thickened, approximately 20 minutes. Add more stock if necessary during this process to achieve the right texture. Add 1/3 of the Parmesan, mixing well. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.

Cut mozzarella into 1/2-inch slices and put into a colander to drain. Sauté spinach in the remaining oil flavored with the garlic and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Spread half the rice mixture into bottom of large round casserole dish at least 3 inches deep. Add spinach, layer of mozzarella another 1/3 of parmesan. Repeat with remaining rice, layer of mozzarella and remaining 1/3 parmesan. Bake 20 minutes. Serve immediately while cheese is bubbly on top.

Adding one generous layer of bechamel sauce to the middle of any of the above recipes takes it up another notch.

Bechamel Sauce

1/2 stick unsalted butter

32 oz. cold whole milk

2 heaping Tbsp. flour

1/4 tsp. white pepper

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

Melt butter in medium pot. Slowly add flour, whisking until mixture is smooth. Add cold milk slowly to butter mixture using wire whip. Add pepper and nutmeg. Continue to whip constantly over medium heat until sauce thickens.

Mangia Bene

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Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.