Car Crash with a Chance of Meatballs

or: Searching for Stanley (Part 2)

Let’s tell it like it is: Tony was hard to pin down for a time, a place, or any specifics of the part he intended to play in the pre-prep he suggested ‘we’ could do in order that this Car Crash Cooking Live (Festive Special Edition) might sound like ‘a good idea’. I was, to say the least, reluctant – I may even have told him that his baby was going to be ugly. I sure as hell pointed out that there were easier alternatives for us to consider and (in desperation!) that we couldn’t in any case host a ‘feature length’ IG live – the platform does not allow it. But Tony was also insistent – and this is, after all, his gig – and nothing but ‘Timpano’ would do for a Car Crash Christmas.

He had all the faith anyone needed that we could pull this gob stopping, heart stopping, showstopping pie ‘out of the bag’ and ‘out of its pan’– with a cast iron ‘what’s-to-lose?’ Plan B, that the event is, in any case, billed as a ‘car crash’. He’s also a hard man to put a full stop to and, as inevitably as a runaway train builds momentum, we found ourselves (Tony, Hayley, Sam, Chloe on camera, and me on edge), on the first Tuesday of December, prepped and as camera ready as anyone ever can be, for our IG live. Our Wimbledon showroom was chock full of weighed out, weighty, ‘ready to roll’ and ‘ready to assemble’ ingredients for the biggest and ugliest pie that I’m prepared to lay odds any of us has ever contemplated making.

But let’s start with the history. This pie is really all about Stanley (Tucci) – a man for our moment – a genuine Hollywood star who has consistently shone a ‘class act’ light on any project he is associated with. His fame has recently hit new superstar heights, perhaps more than anything else for the simple act of being himself while making a Negroni for his wife live on Instagram. This single act of generosity – to Felicity (his wife) and to the watching audience (the ‘world’ in general) – went viral – in a good way, and for a good reason: the world was locked down, locked in and locked out of so much – but, for those of us watching, we could share a cocktail made by this charming man and enjoy a good night in (another one!) – only this time with an elegant, if strong, drink inside us.

The recipe for Timpano is Stanley’s – his family Christmas tradition. He shared it publicly first on film (Big Night, 1996), then via a cookbook (The Tucci Cookbook, 2012) – adapted by Frank Bruni that same year in the New York Times – and, most recently following his latest publication (Taste: My Life Through Food), via an Observer Food Monthly segment where he cooked it, in his own kitchen, together with food critic Jay Rayner who documented the process.

Our version, necessarily, started with some disciplined prep. A Tucci Ragùcci requires the gentle simmering of a base note ‘stew’ in copious quantities of red wine and tomatoes, and let’s just say we stopped counting after about 5 hours of tenderising and reduction – but, in its defence, it did taste ‘worth-all-the-time-and-effort’! The Ziti pasta required a DT family’s worth of ASMR snapping, the boiled eggs were a cinch (we have a steam oven and ‘boiled’ them on auto pilot), and all the rest pretty much came down to a bowl full of meatballs ‘we made earlier’, some eye-brow raising quantities of salami and Provolone cheese, sourced from one of our local Wimbledon Deli’s (Prezzomolo & Vitale in this instance – a special shout out to Nunzio for his expert salami dicing assistance), topped by more cheese (Pecorino Romano), more eggs, and a dough blanket the size of which necessitated cranking out the measuring tape to assess appropriate space to roll it out.

Tony was, in the end, our man for this moment. With some cheerleading words from the late great Antonio Carluccio ringing in his ears*, to help him justify both the ambition and the effort before a waiting, if somewhat sceptical, audience (not quite at Tucci levels in number or general adulation, but not too shabby none the less), he expertly manipulated the ingredients into shape. And what a shape it turned out to be! As big as Charlie Brown’s head and every bit as good-looking. Tony’s pride beamed forth as we turned our baby upside down onto a waiting board – golden brown, texture like a crisply baked elephant hide – if he’d had a cigar, I’m sure he would have lit it in celebration, even as his specs misted gently over with the emotion of the moment of cutting it open to reveal the gorgeous layers beneath – or maybe that was just the steam rising from this ‘beauty of a beast’.

Just for the record, we found our intersection with the recipe as shared on the NYT and as adapted, with UK friendly measures, by Jay Rayner – with a ‘shared experience’ vibe – albeit we lacked the back-up professionals (photographer and make-up artist) that Stanley and Jay were able to call on for such a big event. We did take up the suggestion of some ‘chilled white’ and a ‘robust red’ to help see us through the endeavour, however – and some of us may have regretted the generosity of that last glass of red (as seen in our ‘homage to Stanley and Jay’ photo) enjoyed, perhaps, in too much of the flurry and hurry of relief before finally heading home for the night!

Our assemblage, some of our methods, much of our madness, and all our unveiling of this heavyweight baby are still available to view on our Instagram account @day_true

You can also find links and our notes for our sources attached, should you be mad enough to wish to try this dish at home.

Stanning @stanleytucci with @jayrayner1 @hayley_tonyrobson @erica.b.badmom Credits: (Above) Grooming: JoJo Dutton, Food styling: Liberty Greene Fennell Photograph: Sophia Spring/The Observer (Below) 📷 : Chloe Innes, Styling: Hayley Robson

*“You may wonder why we should make a timbale, when all the ingredients cooked for the first stage of the dish would be good enough to eat as they are! The answer is that the timbale produces a richer, more opulent dish, which is just what you need when all the family, or many friends are gathered together. The extra effort completely justifies the results which will please everybody. The preparation will please you, in particular, because the perfect place to finish a timbale is in the oven, so you have time to join in the fun. Whilst the layers stay soft and moist a fantastic crispness develops on top – it has to be tasted to be believed.”  ~ ‘Antonio Carlucci’s Passion for Pasta’

Erica (December 2021)