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the white table

The days are not long. The nights are short. Guitars are hiding in cases, with scraps of paper tucked inside. The pen is full. There is a fresh notebook, with creamy pages. The little white desk is in the middle of the living room, a cascade of receipts and laundry perched on it.

I clean it off, have lunch as it stares back at me. This focal point, this fulcrum where my thoughts become real, this cheap folding table from Ikea. It is familiar, and patient.

the lesson of the timpano

The idea must have come from seeing my brother a few weeks ago. I showed E a scene from Big Night, the one where the two brothers make a timpano, that magical giant dome of pasta stuffed with "the most important things in the world".  She rolled her eyes once, and said the hard boiled egg would not be interesting for her. We went back and forth, imagining what we would fill our version with. Meatballs on the small side, from chicken so they would be light. Black olives in the ricotta we would make from scratch, to bring some salty complexity. The sauce would have a little salami at the base, basil, fresh mint. The decision was made without really thinking about it, just the thought of a giant impressive object to slice into just before midnight as we made out way into the new year.

I worked that day, running to the kitchen to make pie dough and peel an excessive amount of apples. I like to put way too many in my pie. I am a generous cook. 

By the time work was done, it was already afternoon. I set about, making the meatballs first, with minced shallot and garlic, plenty of pecorino, fresh breadcrumbs, a splash of milk, eggs, more mint, more basil. E rolled them into little balls, her arms already getting tired as I fried them off in batches. The sauce was already going, barely bubbling at the back of the stove making little red splashes on the walls from time to time. Then the ricotta, three liters of whole milk in the pot, a big pinch of salt, some cream I was not going to use any more of, and wait for it to simmer. Then, the juice of a lemon from Azerbaijan that tasted like meyer but they don't have those here. Let is all rest, cool, come together. 

Sitting at the kitchen table, pitting olives, hands cramping up a little. Time to wash the spinach and steam it, cool it. 
I am starving, having skipped lunch. I slice off wedges of bread to dunk in the sauce, then roll them quickly in grated pecorino. There is no name for this dish. It is for people who cannot wait, the tasters of things not done. I made one for E and her eyes grew wide. 
"That's good pop." She said.
A laugh jumped from my mouth as I made her another one.

Then it was time to clear the counter, crack many eggs into the well of flour (half semolina, half double zero). Work the dough until it comes together, adding a splash of water if it is too dry and it was. I wrap it in a towel and let it rest. Time for a coffee, to stare out the windows at the snow falling, the streets cold and icy below. We are not in Moscow somehow. This is the uncharted island of our kitchen that smells of tomatoes and black pepper, of the country pate I made earlier, the apple pie that will come out of the oven soon brown and crusted with good sugar. 

And then the rolling of the dough with my special pin, tapered at the edges so I can use the entire force of my body to squeeze it out thin, dusting with flour to keep it from sticking. The first sheet is a giant oval now, thin enough to see light through. I cut it into strips and then squares, rolling each around the stem of a spoon, gluing each garganelli closed with a dot of egg.

Rolling out five more chunks of pasta dough, it is time. I call E to the kitchen. She has long since retreated to making jokes with her friends on her phone somewhere else in the house. She takes pictures as I build it, in the biggest bowl we have. 

Two layers of fresh pasta dough are draped over the edges, hanging like elephant ears. Then two ladles of sauce, then half of the garganelli that I par-cooked. They say you should line them up the same way, so it looks extra-pretty when you cut into it. I say to hell with it, why not. Then a layer of the meatballs. Then torn pieces of fresh mozzarella, then the spinach, a good dose of pecorino, then the ricotta and those olives. It all smells fresh and wet and sweet. Then more sauce, the second layer of meatballs, and I slip the extra dough over, adding one last piece to sew things up. It goes into the over heavy in my arms.

A few minutes later I realize I forgot to put the rest of the mozzarella in, so I grab the giant hot bowl from the oven, carefully peeling back the top pasta layers that are already wet and red with sauce, sticky in my hands but I cram the torn pieces in, my fingers a hot wet mess as the flaps go back the last piece nudged into place and then back into the oven. 

I walk around the house, my chest puffed out I am so proud of this special object.

The prosecco is poured. V is fast asleep in the next room. N and her mother sit and talk about the funny things that happened in the last few days. We make toasts to the old year. I eye the timpano, turned upside down, resting on the cutting board for some time now. I am worried it is too wet, that it will implode and slide onto the floor in one red, gooey mess once I lift the bowl away. I am wearing a white shirt as a sort of gamble, to see how long I can keep it free of sauce. 

The bowl comes away easily and the pasta holds. It is warm and solid to the touch, like touching an animal's belly, full of food. I keep my hands there. But the knife is ready, and I do slice in. E stands with a plate to catch whatever I come up with. It does look pretty. There are oohs and aaahs. I make up four plates, and at the last moment I do splash sauce onto my shirt. 

We fork into the giant bowls and I am suddenly disappointed. I worked so hard to balance things, to find singular flavors that would stand well next to each other, but it is all on the bland side, and utterly unimpressive. I could have just made carbonara, and it would have tasted a hundred times better. N looks at me. She confirms what I am thinking already. 

"I had to make it once in my life." I explain.
She smiles. She nods, She already knows that.

There is a lesson in all this, I tell myself as the clock strikes twelve, as we kiss and shout a little. I don't need to take on such excessive, ambitious objects. In fact, they are a sort of trap. They may not be worth the effort in the end. Better to keep things simple. Better to elevate the mundane than to paint things in gold. 

Deep in the night, after I have walked N's mother home in the cold and ice, after E has been tucked into her warm bed, the timpano stands on the counter. We barely made a dent in this beast. I shove it all onto a plate, wrap it in plastic, wondering if it will taste better as leftovers. 


Kevin said…
you are a madman. glad you went for it and took the time to enjoy the process. element by element, it seemed savory and delicious, hope you pocketed a few meatballs. i look forward to your pastry tales of croquembouche.
liv said…
I loved Big Night, thanks for reminding me of that wonderful movie.
It may not have tasted as good as you wanted, though effort is it's own reward, sometimes. But the wonderful outcome was that you posted about your cooking !! It was so much fun to read and the pictures were fantastic. In this, you succeeded perfectly!!
Elizabeth said…
I'm going to go watch Big Night. I'm sorry your timpano didn't come out as you'd imagined -- that seems like a hell of a lot of effort -- but I admire how you spun the disappointment into something -- well -- very much flavored. Happy New Year!
Marco North said…
thanks Elizabeth! I put a lot of effort into other meals and they are much more satisfying. In any case, I am glad you enjoyed the writing - that is what actually matters.
Marco North said…
thanks Liv. You know very well I wrote a "cooking story" in your honor. Well, and a bit for my little brother. I remember seeing Big Night in the theater and being deeply moved by the brother elements to the story - they really hit home.
Marco North said…
thanks Kevin and the meatballs are pretty damn good. something about the mint and the pecorino make them special.

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