Big Night: Timpano Recipe

Year Released: 1996

Directed by: Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

Starring: Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm, Minnie Driver

(R, 107 min.)

"There is nothing at last sacred but the integrity of your own soul." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Two brothers pull out all the stops in a last ditch effort to save their floundering restaurant. The climax of Big Night is a fabulous meal, a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, and seasoned with the classic Italian spices – passion, artistry, loyalty, and betrayal.

Like the recent Zathura, as well as In Her ShoesBig Night is about two siblings who couldn’t be more different from each other. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is not so much a chef as he is an artist who continues to slave over his masterpiece, risotto, even though his “philistine” customers would rather dine on spaghetti and meatballs. Meanwhile, younger brother Secondo, (Stanley Tucci), who acts as maitre d’, assistant chef, and chief financial officer, has the less glamorous task of keeping the bank from foreclosing.

In many ways, despite the backdrop of the restaurant and all the discussion, preparation, and presentation of delightful dishes, Big Night is really about the struggle for artistic integrity and the bond between two brothers. Uncompromising Primo could have just as well been a consummate jazz artist who refuses to go commercial or a painter who shuns portrait commissions even though they would pay his bills.

Primo regards food at his Paradise Restaurant with an almost religious zeal and is as ruthless in his condemnation of culinary heretics as any Grand Inquisitor in Spain might be. Pascal, who runs the garishly successful Italian restaurant down the street, should go to prison for the food he serves, for what goes on in his establishment is the “rape of cuisine.” After such solemn pronouncements, you may find yourself wondering if you can ever eat spaghetti and meatballs again without being overtaken by guilt? Will inappropriate thoughts of pizza need to be aired at the confessional?

More pragmatic Secondo sees their Paradise Restaurant in a more secular vision, and he doesn’t have any problems going to Pascal’s bar for drinks and conversation at the end of a long day. At the end of his rope, he asks Pascal for a loan, but the shrewd businessman refuses and offers to hire the brothers instead. When Secondo politely turns him down, Pascal (Ian Holm) makes an offer Secondo can’t refuse. Pascal will get his friend, the ever-popular Louie Prima and his band, to dine at the Paradise for a banquet in their honor, and the ensuing publicity will bring in the customers Primo and Secondo have been waiting for.

As the two brothers prepare for the “Big Night,” we find out even more about them. With the elusive goddess of fortune so close, we discover its looming importance to Secondo. He keeps his steady girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver) at arm’s length, putting off intimacy until he has some means. And while he asks Pascal for a monetary loan, he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about partaking of other assets without permission, such as the womanly charms of Pascal’s mistress, Gabriella played by a glowing Isabella Rossellini, who looks every bit as seductive and beautiful as her mother Ingrid Bergman ever did. And after what Gabriella sees as all too short a dalliance, he asks her for the name of someone who can get him discount liquor, making us wonder if the name rather than her allure has been the chief purpose of his visit.

With thoughts of his pot of gold just over the rainbow, Secondo treats himself to the ultimate taste of success – a test ride in a Cadillac, next year’s advanced model at that. By contrast, Primo doesn’t even drive. And, although he is sweet on the lovely widow who provides flowers to the restaurant, he cannot for the life of him, even muster up a decent conversation with her, let alone ask her for a date. It is brother Secondo who asks her to the planned feast, and when she appears, to Primo’s delight, he whisks her away to the kitchen, where armed with sauces and spice, he serves her “love letters” in the form of lasagna. 

And the courses flow out from the kitchen like a never ending Rose Bowl parade where each float outdoes the other. An iridescent soup, three kinds of risotto, baked salmon with dill sauce and the coup de grace “Timpano,” a pastry drum filled with every Italian delicacy imaginable. When the roast suckling pig is presented, even the audience groans in discomfort, for unless the diners are to become Roman revelers, there is no room for this grand dish.

Unfortunately, the dessert is followed by the discovery of casual betrayals, heartbreak, and finally, an all out slugfest on the Jersey shores. Ah, but such a night! You will remember the grand banquet at the Paradise long after you have forgotten the treachery served up with the wine.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Those of you who have seen Mostly Martha will find Primo much more like perfectionist German chef featured there rather than the easy going Italian assistant chef who works under Martha in that film. In fact, many Italians have commented that the snooty attitude toward food exhibited by Primo is not typical of Italian cooks and seems suspiciously French.

I beg to differ. My Italian mother and her nine sisters were all first generation Americans and whenever they really wanted to hurt another sister, they would criticize her cooking. “ Rose’s gravy was a little thin,” or heresy of heresy, Nancy had actually purchased grated Parmesan instead of grating it herself!

Our own regional favorite dish was Easter pizza, not really too different from the Timpano featured in Big Night. Like the Easter pizza, the Timpano is a major undertaking, and might deserve a holiday all it own. Some people have their own “Big Night” dinners. If you are interested, the link below provides more recipes as well as cocktail suggestions.


Dough (Use your favorite pie recipe, double recipe, eliminate sugar.) 

  • 3 cups unbleached all purpose flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into _-inch pieces

  • 2 large egg yolks

  • 3 tablespoons (about) ice water

Dough can be made in a food processor or by hand. 

Serves 8 to 10 

  1. Mix flour and salt.

  2. Add butter until coarse meal forms.

  3. Whisk egg yolk and 1 1/2 tablespoons ice water in small bowl to blend.

  4. Drizzle egg mixture over dough until moist clumps begin to form, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if dough is too dry or flour if sticky.

  5. Gather dough into ball and dust the ball with flour. Flatten into a disk on a floured surface and roll out dough. Turn dough while rolling it out.

  6. We used a 3-quart metal bowl (wider at the top) for the timpáno. Generously grease the bowl with butter and olive oil.

  7. Fold the dough in half and place it in the pan. Open the dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and sides, draping the extra dough over the sides. Set aside.

  8. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F.


  • 1 cup 1/4 x 1/2 inch Genoa salami pieces, one small stick

  • 1 cup 1/4 x 1/2 inch sharp provolone cheese cubes, about 5 oz

  • 6 hard-boiled eggs, shelled, quartered lengthwise, and each quarter cut in half to create chunks.

  • 1 cup little meatballs

  • 4 cups ragú* sauce, we purchased the sauce

  • 1 1/2pounds ziti pasta, cooked very al dente: about 1/2 the recommended time on the package; drained. About 9 cups cooked.

  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil

  • 1/3 cup of grated Romano cheese

  • 2 large eggs, beaten

  • Butter to oil pan

  1. Salami, provolone, hard-boiled eggs meatballs and ragù should be at room temperature. These ingredients can be cut and made in advance.

  2. Toss the drained pasta with the olive oil and 1 cup of the ragù.

  3. Distribute 3 generous cups of the pasta on the bottom of the timpámo.

  4. Top with 1/2 cup of the salami, 1/2 cup of the provolone, 1/2of the hard-boiled eggs, 1/2 cup of the meatballs, and 1/3 of the Romano cheese. Pour 1 cup of the ragù over these ingredients.

  5. Top with 3 cups of the remaining pasta. Top that with the remaining _ cup salami, _ cup provolone, the rest of the hard-boiled eggs, _ cup meatballs, and another 1/3 of the Romano. Pour over 1 cup of the ragù over these ingredients.

  6. Top with the remaining pasta and spoon the remaining ragù over the pasta

  7. Pour the beaten eggs over the filing.

  8. Fold the dough over the filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough.

  9. Bake until lightly browned about 1 hour, check after 45 minutes. Then cover with aluminum foil and continue baking until the timpáno is cooked through and the dough is golden brown and reaches an internal temperature of 120 degrees F, about 30 minutes.

  10. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 30 or more minutes.

  11. The baked timpáno should not stick to the pan. If any part appears to be stuck, carefully detach with a knife.

  12. Carefully invert the timpáno onto a serving platter. If the underside of the timpáno is not lightly brown, brush with butter and return it to the oven on a cookie sheet to bake for a few minutes longer.

  13. Allow the timpáno to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving. Carefully slice the timpáno into individual portions like a pie.

Since the timpáno is so unusual, we like to show it to guests before slicing it.

* Ragù is a meat sauce served with pasta and is a staple of northern Italy.

Recipe Source: Big Night Menu