The day I cooked timpano with Stanley Tucci

Getting your homework marked by Stanley Tucci is terrifying. Not because he is scary. On the contrary. He has impeccable, courtly manners. It’s terrifying because of what is at stake. I prise off the lid to the plastic box and turn its contents towards him, shyly. Tucci plucks a single chilled meatball from the one kilo throng, each the size of a large marble, and pops it into his mouth. He nods slowly, then smiles. “Perfetto,” he says, simply. Thank Christ for that. The meatballs, made to his own detailed recipe, are a key part of a grandiose cooking adventure we are embarking upon today, here in his kitchen. They need to be right.

In 1996, Tucci introduced the world to one of his family’s great culinary traditions, courtesy of the movie Big Night, which he starred in, co-wrote and co-directed. In the film, set in 1950s America, Tucci plays a recent Italian immigrant who, along with his chef brother, runs a struggling Italian restaurant on the shore not far from New York City. To raise its profile, they decide to stage a special dinner which, they have been told, will be attended by the great American-Italian singing star Louis Prima. The centrepiece of this magnificent, delirious feast will be a timpano.

The timpano is, essentially, a giant pie, although that three-letter word doesn’t do it justice. As the name suggests, it is drum-shaped. It is layered with pasta and ragu (made to a Tucci family recipe), with provolone cheese and the richest of salamis; with boiled eggs, handfuls of grated pecorino romano and, yes, meatballs. The movie’s exuberantly positive reviews focused on the timpano. The New York Times saw it as a “rare and backbreaking Italian delicacy” although there is nothing delicate about it at all. The great film critic Roger Ebert described how the audience “sighs with simple delight”, when it is sliced open.

Over the quarter of a century since Big Night’s release, the timpano has become a cult object; a signifier for all that is good and greedy in movies about food. In his new book, Taste: My Life Through Food, Tucci tells its story: the way it was imported by his father’s family from Calabria and became a Christmas fixture and ended up causing family rows. “I never remember not having it on Christmas Day,” he writes. Tucci and I know each other a little, and I got to read an early copy of the book, complete with the 1,500-word timpano recipe.

The book is the story of a man whose profession is acting, but whose life is food. “It is fair to say that I now probably spend more time thinking about and focusing on food than I do on acting,” he writes, in the introduction. He has already published cookbooks. There have been viral Instagram videos detailing the intricacies of his beloved negroni, and a gorgeously languid CNN series in which he ate his way round Italy wearing linen and never looking creased or stained. Now there is this account of his life, one dish at a time, one timpano at a time. I told him by email that I was tempted to try making one. “Regarding the timpano,” he replied, “I am happy to do it together.”

So here we are, in his airy home in south London. Tucci, now 60, has lived here for the past eight years, since marrying his second wife, the British literary agent Felicity Blunt, sister of the actor Emily, whom he worked with on The Devil Wears Prada. He met Felicity at the latter’s wedding to John Krasinski, after the death of his first wife, Kate, and they quickly bonded over food. Hence the expansion of this kitchen. It is the gorgeous, vaulted space of a merged family that loves to cook and loves to eat. There is a huge, marble-topped central island with no overhead extraction. “The extraction is here,” says Tucci, pointing to a fancy vent next to the induction hob. “It means I can cook and talk to my family rather than facing the wall.” He has a walk-in pantry stuffed full of quality dried pasta, and a wine fridge out of which comes a chilled sancerre. We’re going to have a good day.

Laid out in front of us are vats of the ragu, simmered with pork and beef ribs which have since been removed. There are pots of freshly boiled fusilli, now gently steaming. There are the boiled eggs and the cubed salami and the cheese and my meatballs, and clingfilm-wrapped pillows of dough which, he says, were made by Felicity. “I can’t make dough,” he tells me. “Terrible at it.” Where is Felicity, I ask. I know she has a home office. “She’s out,” he says. “Felicity can’t bear the timpano.” She isn’t alone. Kate hated it, too, and so do his daughters and sister. “I think there’s something to do with gender and the timpano. I think it’s to do with the amount of salt.”

Or it just might be that it’s a logistical nightmare. The recipe says that it takes an hour to cook. Or maybe 90 minutes. Or perhaps two hours. It depends on the pan it’s cooked in, and the available ingredients, and the direction the wind is blowing. Then it has to rest for a good while. With an object this big, nothing is guaranteed, including success.

“Sometimes it sticks in the pan,” says Tucci. “Sometimes it collapses when it comes out. Sometimes it’s too dry.” Trying to time the rest of a Christmas Day meal around such a neurotic, unreliable beast of a dish is a nightmare. “Felicity got my father to agree to do it on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day by being utterly charming,” Tucci says. “It made my dad sad but he accepted it. It was so much better that way.”

Still, Tucci’s twentysomething son Nico from his marriage to Kate is here and it’s clear father and son are excited about today. They discuss when the last time was that they cooked one. “It’s been a long while,” Tucci says. “At least four years.” I look at him? So, pre-diagnosis? He nods. “Not since then.” Four years ago, Tucci was diagnosed with a large cancerous tumour at the base of his tongue, a fact he kept private but has now described in the new book. “I was stunned to the point of almost fainting,” he writes of that diagnosis. “My wife Kate had died after a horrid four-year struggle with cancer and the thought of revisiting that world again was something I dreaded.” His account of going there, of the misery of treatment that robbed a man who lived to eat of his sense of taste, of being fed through a tube for a while, is clear-eyed and unflinching. There is space for self-pity, but only a little. In the heat of it, Felicity gives birth to Emilia, their first child together; later the story features a jolly walk-on part for both Colin Firth and Ryan Reynolds, who supported him through some of his treatment.

I watch him drop an ice cube into his sancerre. “Almost everything is fine but I do still have saliva issues,” he says, by way of explanation. “Wine needs to be moist enough. A hamburger has to have a high fat ratio, or it just turns into a dry bolus in my mouth.” I wonder aloud about the timpano. “It could be an issue. We’ll see.” Making this today is clearly yet another step in the successful journey to reclaim his life.

It’s like theatre. You rehearse by looking at the recipe and assembling the parts. Then you make the thing. Then it disappears
Today we’re using a large 40cm Le Creuset pot, the inside of which I am instructed to both butter and oil. I recognise my responsibility. If the damn thing doesn’t slip out, it will be my fault. I pelt the interior with grease. Tucci rolls out what is essentially a pasta dough. It has become a vast, thin sail, because it will be used in one piece. We mutter at each other about how we’ll get it into the pot, until I flour it, fold it up and just chuck it in. It unfurls beautifully, covering the bottom and the sides and leaving enough for the top. We start to fill it: first a layer of sauced pasta, then the cheese, chopped eggs and meatballs, handfuls of pecorino and more ragu. Then we start again.

The meatball recipe required me to buy white bread, let it go stale and then moisten it. “I did let it go stale,” I tell Tucci, “but I’m not sure why, given I then had to moisten it.” Clearly, it was originally a way for using up stale bread and stretching expensive minced beef. Now it feels like playing at being an Italian peasant. He recognises the point. “It’s just always the way it’s been done,” he says, with a shrug. And then: “You know the best meatballs I ever had were at George Clooney’s house on Lake Como.” I stare at the floor, as if searching showily for the dropped name. He shrugs. “Yeah, I know.” This is his life. He can’t apologise for it. “They were made by Clooney’s chef who said the key was the bread.” I get the point. Follow the damn recipe and don’t argue.

The pot is full. We pour in six beaten eggs, then together we stretch the rest of the dough over the top, as if swaddling a baby which, in a sense, we are. It is now very much our baby. The edges are stuck into place with a brush of milk. Extra is trimmed. It is pushed into the oven, with the lid off. We look at each other. Tucci says: “Well, let’s see.”

While it cooks, we sit outside in the shade of a broad spreading tree and talk. I suggest he seems very much in his happy place, cooking. “I am,” he says. “It gives me great pleasure.” Does he really enjoy it more than acting? “If it’s the right acting project, I’m happy and excited about it,” he says. “Some films you do because the role is exciting, or for the money. Or it’s Supernova with Colin Firth and you say yes, I will go to the Lake District for no money because the story is beautiful.” His relationship with food is simpler. “Sometimes with acting I think ‘what a beautiful thing to do’, and at other times I think, ‘what a wasted life’. But food, that’s an end in itself.”

He waves in the direction of the house where, at 180C, the timpano is baking. “What we’re doing today is extremely performative. It’s like theatre. You rehearse making the thing by looking at the recipe and assembling the parts. Then you make the thing. Then it disappears. Then you have to make it all over again.” His work around food has expanded greatly recently. I wonder whether he has ever suffered from impostor syndrome. After all, his only real training is as an actor. “I used to feel that way,” he says. “Two years ago or so, I would never have let you into my kitchen. I would not have felt comfortable.” But it’s different now. He has cooked alongside Angela Hartnett. He has cooked with Gennaro Contaldo. He knows his stuff. “As I get older, I really would like to digress into food, learning about food, explaining food.” He acknowledges that it is a commercially viable proposition. Brands are eager to work with him. “It just has to be the right brand,” he says.

The shadows in the garden have moved. The pot has had an hour, then a further 30 minutes covered and now the internal temperature is at the required 48C. It is time. We heave it out on to the marble top and then shoot a few pictures together while it cools. We are elbow to elbow in chefs’ whites, a momentary echo of his performance with Tony Shalhoub in Big Night. The sancerre has given way to a glass of a big Tuscan red.

Finally, we can put it off no longer. First, I work my way around the edges with a broad spatula, hoping that I am merely releasing the pastry from the sides, rather than cutting into it. Tucci places a thick wooden board on top of the pot, lifts it up and with a guiding hand from me, inverts it. He grunts. This is cooking as manual labour. Now he reaches down to the handles and starts to lift, jiggling it as he goes. We hold our breath. There is a slurp, and then the first inch or two of the golden, floured pastry case reveals itself. He lets out a bark of a laugh, before lifting the pot off. The timpano stands proud and robust, solid and baked. Reader, I high-fived him.

The kitchen is filled with giddy laughter and excitement. The fact is Tucci and I are far from alone. There is Sophia, our photographer and her assistant, Johnny, plus our brilliant home economist Liberty, there to help with some of the food prep. There’s JoJo, the makeup artist, Tucci’s assistant Lottie and, of course, Nico. There’s a crowd of us. And now we are all cheering and laughing and sighing at the successful execution of a pie. We hadn’t realised quite how tense we were. Tucci discusses which side it should be photographed from. He shows us a shot of the timpano from Big Night. “It didn’t look right,” he says. “The surface is all ridged and curled. It’s wrong. But this one…”

Again, we must let it cool before a circle is cut out of the centre. “It stops it from falling apart when you cut in,” Tucci says, “Though I don’t know why.” It works. A solid slice comes out and though it crumbles slightly, the layers are intact. Together Tucci and I have our first taste of the timpano. He smiles broadly, as well he might. There is the rich Tucci family ragu, the satisfying slurp of the pasta and the solid bite of the cubed salami. There is a lot of everything. It is a celebratory gateau for people who don’t do cake. It’s a whack of the savoury and the satisfying. “Not dry at all,” Tucci says proudly. He’s been cooking and eating this all his 60 years. It helped to make his name as an actor, screenwriter and a director. It is, in short, the story of his life, on a plate. Albeit, given the size of a timpano, a bloody big one.