Director Stanley Tucci promotes his 2017 drama, 'Final Portrait,' in Rome. Photo: Ernesto Ruscio / Getty Images
> First Person
How Stanley Tucci Does Christmas Dinner
In an excerpt from "Taste: My Life in Food," the actor explains how timpano, the show-stopping dish from "Big Night," is a family tradition / BY Kim Honey / December 16th, 2021
Stanley Tucci is not kidding when he says his life has been defined by food. In the actor’s new, pun-filled memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food, every memory of family and friends is linked to some unforgettable dish or intoxicating cocktail. Although the movie star has published two previous recipe books, The Tucci Cookbook and The Tucci Table, this time he writes about the personal connections to his favourite food and drink.
He begins with his childhood in Katonah, N.Y., where he and his mom used to watch Julia Child cook on TV. His parents’ families have roots in Calabria, and when their parents emigrated to the U.S., they brought Southern Italian traditions with them, like pasteurizing sauce made from bushels of tomatoes over an outdoor fire, making wine in the basement and keeping rabbits, chickens and sometimes goats in the yard next to the expansive vegetable garden.
The book is threaded with recipes that pop up in the middle of chapters as Tucci describes their provenance: his grandfather’s ragu, which the family ate at every Sunday dinner, the spaghetti carbonara he tasted in Rome for his documentary TV series Searching for Italy, and a six-ingredient frittata he learned to make so he could film it in real time for his award-winning 1996 film, Big Night.
The most poignant chapters focus on his salivary-gland cancer diagnosis in 2017 and the devastating effects of chemotherapy, which killed his taste buds and his appetite, to the point where he had a feeding tube inserted in his stomach. It also terrified his three teenaged children, who lost their mom, and Tucci’s wife, Kate Spath-Tucci, to breast cancer in 2009. He chronicles his recovery, which took almost two years, and the miraculous side effect: His previous food intolerances to dairy, sugar and gluten vanished.
In the following excerpt from Taste: My Life Through Food, he writes about timpano, which graces the Tucci table every Christmas, and inspired an unforgettable scene in Big Night.
There is a dish, a very special dish, that is served in our home on Christmas Day. It is called timpano. This is a baked drum of pastry-like dough filled with pasta, ragù, salami, various cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, and meatballs. It’s a big, heavy dish, and needless to say very filling. The recipe and the tradition of serving it on special occasions, particularly Christmas, were brought to America by my father’s family.
I never remember not having it on Christmas Day, whether we were celebrating at our home or at the home of one of my dad’s siblings. It is quite a showstopper, so much so that we chose to feature it in Big Night as the centerpiece of the film’s climactic meal. However, its preparation is very labor-intensive, and the cooking process requires much time and attention. It is for this last reason that, even though we would not be sitting down to eat until about two or three p.m., my parents would arrive at about eleven a.m. to begin the process of finishing the cooking of the timpano, which they had painstakingly assembled a couple of days before.
Upon hearing the sound of car tires on the gravel drive and a moment later the shouts of “Merry Christmas!” from my parents’ mouths, I would sheepishly look at Kate. She would sigh quietly and then, as she slowly turned and stared at me, I would see something die in her eyes. At this point my anxiety level would skyrocket and I’d flit off to the bar to see if I couldn’t find liquid calm in a bloody Mary or a scotch sour. Laden with gifts and platters of food, including the pièce de résistance shrouded in a large dishcloth, my elegantly dressed parents would climb the stairs smiling from ear to ear, as thrilled to see us as if we’d all been separated for decades, when in fact we had only just seen them the night before. They were so happy and excited, how could I even think of being put out by their extremely early arrival? (Well, perhaps not so much me as my poor wife.) I will tell you how. The timpano.
It is the inconstant cooking and resting times required of each individual timpano made any given year that became the bane of Christmas Day. It is a temperamental dish to say the least. It might take an hour or two to cook, then need to rest for an hour, or vice versa. It depends on the oven, the vessel it’s cooked in, if the sauce it is made with is a little more watery than usual, if the timpano has been previously frozen, etc., etc. That’s all fine, if it is the only thing you are serving. But timpano was served as a first course. Therefore it was impossible to time the second course, like a leg of lamb or even a simple ham. People often wonder why, if there is such a huge first course, there is even a need for a second course at all. I have no answer for them. All I know is that it is traditional. It is very rare that one eats in an Italian home and both a primo and a secondo are not served on any given day. I remember the first time my brother-in-law John came to visit us in Westchester, my parents were over and my mother had cooked. She served the Tucci family ragù with pasta, followed by the ragù meat and meatballs. Obviously finding it delicious, John kept going back for more. After a while, bowls and plates were cleared and new plates laid, at which point my mother brought a roast chicken, potatoes, two different vegetables, and a salad to the table. I noticed that John was suddenly a bit rattled. Confounded by what was basically another entire meal being placed before him, he politely asked, “Wow, wait, what’s all this?”
“What do you mean?” asked my mother, equally confounded by
his query. “It’s dinner.”
“Still?!” He gawped. “I mean, well, what was that, that we just
“That was just the first course,” said my father, grinning devilishly.
“Oh my God! I thought—”
“You thought that was it, didn’t you?” I asked.
“Well, yeah. I mean, I had three helpings!”
“I had a feeling you thought that was the main course!”
“Are you kidding?! You can’t have just that. Especially on a Sunday!” chastised my mother.
Needless to say, we dug into the chicken and vegetables with gusto.
Two courses. It’s just the way it has always been, and on holidays both courses just get bigger. A lasagna, a bowl of pasta, or a soup as a first course is perfectly acceptable, but as I say, timpano can cause issues both culinary and marital. How many over- or undercooked, not inexpensive pieces of meat were angrily eaten by Kate due to her inability to time them appropriately because of the timpano, I cannot say. Not only were those legs or hocks lovingly prepared by her but also, they were what she was looking forward to eating, because she didn’t even like timpano. (It’s sort of like cilantro; you either like it or you don’t. I happen to love it.) But even if the meal miraculously ended up being timed perfectly, the timpano was so rich and heavy that the meat course could not be enjoyed to the fullest. At any rate, somehow we ate our way through just about everything most Christmases, but not without a lingering resentment deep in Kate’s soul.
I am of course being a bit harsh when I make it seem as though Christmases were ruined completely by an inanimate drum of pasta filled pastry, but sometimes it came close.
Excerpted from TASTE: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. Copyright © 2021 by Stanley Tucci. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.