If there could be any doubt that real life is rarely like the movies, consider the timballo. On screen it is inevitably presented as one dazzling dish about as easy to make as a 15-course meal. In actuality it can be one dazzling dish that is even simpler than lasagna.
The timballo, of course, has been making Americans quail ever since “Big Night,” the 1996 film about two brothers trying to save their restaurant, inspired bad Italian restaurants to start selling gloppy imitations to cash in.
But at one dinner in Parma, Italy, it was vibrantly clear that you can capture the timballo drama without all the histrionics. A big molded dome of crusty risotto on a huge silver platter, this timballo was presented by a white-gloved waiter in an 18th century palazzo, and the air was filled with expectancy when the first guest sank a knife into it. What lay inside was not a complicated mass of froufrou, but a rich combination of peas, ham and Parmigiano that flowed out to enrich the creamy rice.
The hosts called their showpiece a bomba (literally “bomb”), but it was really a timballo by another name. And its straightforwardness opened up a whole new way of looking at the dish.
At its simplest, a timballo is pasta, risotto or even mashed potatoes taken one glorious step further to make an entree worthy of a dinner party (especially for vegetarians), or just a great choice for weekend cooking when you want a dish that will keep on giving for another meal or two.
The new “Silver Spoon” cookbook from Italy, published last October by Phaidon, offers a timely overview, with a whole chapter of recipes that strips the timballo down to its brilliant essence: pasta or rice, bound with eggs or cheese and baked into a mold with savory accouterments, including pheasant, pumpkin, giblets, meatballs, mushrooms and/or truffles. The same concept can be adapted to potatoes or even broccoli to stellar effect. And when you mix and match old and new, you can come up with variations that involve sauces, American style.
Hollywood’s vision of a timballo is actually a dish from another era. The preparation dates back to the Renaissance, and a version filled with, among other things, goose, trout and candied orange peel was served at the Medici daughters’ weddings. But perhaps the best-known depiction is of a 19th century assemblage of chicken livers, hard-cooked eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles all baked together in a casing of macaroni and pastry in a fragrant, meaty sauce. This timballo had its cinematic moment too, in the 1963 film with Burt Lancaster called “Il Gattopardo” (The Leopard).
A mix of names
The word timballo -- Italian from the French timbale -- is sometimes translated as a pie, other times as a savory cake. Often it is called a pasticcio, although many references say that word applies only to a similar dish baked in a pastry crust. Sometimes a timballo will be labeled a tortino or a sartu (the Neapolitan interpretation). You could almost consider it a casserole, but that would be undervaluing it, like comparing prosciutto to Spam. For drama, it rivals a souffle.
The Parma dinner party model is simplest to follow, with just rice or pasta bound with eggs and/or cheese and baked into a mold. A special dome is usually used, but a springform pan, the same one you would use for a cheesecake, is easier to unmold without the kind of drama you don’t want: collapsing timballo.
Timballos, to use the English plural, occasionally turn up in restaurants, but they are really the best kind of home cooking. Baked small, as they have to be as an individual entree, they lose their impact. Baked large, they turn into the messiest idea for public consumption, something you have to destroy to enjoy.
To make one, you can start with risotto and add eggs and cheese, layer the mixture over a filling and bake it until it’s set and sliceable. It’s even better than plain risotto for company because it solves the serve-immediately timing problem. Risotto in a timballo will hold together as long as you need it to.
Or you can just boil pasta and make a red sauce, then combine them with lots of cheese to bind the strands and bake the mixture into a cake that is so much more dramatic than the same components served in a bowl.
The only trick is in the mixing. You need to toss and stir really well to get every element evenly incorporated and avoid pockets of blandness and explosions of too-muchness.
The old-fashioned kind of timballo would take a kitchen platoon to assemble, with meats, bechamel, ragu, pasta and pastry all involving complicated steps. Cesare Casella’s “True Tuscan” cookbook includes a relatively streamlined recipe for a “lampshade-sized” Renaissance version that still takes up three pages and, he notes, eats up several days.
Given Italy’s short history as a unified country, different regions naturally use different ingredients. Rice is more common in Emilia-Romagna, for instance, where the bomba usually is baked with a filling of pigeon or other game birds as well as peas and local cheese. In the base is dried pasta; in Abruzzo, it can be crepes. Some regions even use ravioli or gnocchi.
Anna del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” says that bechamel is one ingredient that is included most consistently in timballos, although they can also be blanketed with mushroom sauce or fonduta, the obscenely rich Piedmontese cheese soup and sauce.
That idea, and her mention of potato timballos, inspired a heart-stopping combination of mashed potatoes thickened with eggs, flavored with shiitakes and sauced with fonduta. A small sliver in a pool of the eggy-cheesy sauce makes an excellent first course but could be dinner. Call it “Big Night” translated as “Italian for Beginners.”