Timballo is an extravagant, towering pasta pie from Southern Italy: crumbly semi-sweet short pastry enclosing a voluptuous filling of pasta, meat sauce, béchamel sauce, peas, cheese, eggs, ham, mushrooms, giblets etc – the sky is the limit. Timballo is also called timpano and “both words mean the same thing – a drum, as in the timpani of a symphony orchestra” , as Arthur Schwartz says in his splendid book Naples at Table. Timballo has its roots in the kitchens of mid 18th century Southern Italy aristocrats and it has many variations, all of which proudly reject that old adage that “less is more”: the whole point of a timballo is that “more, more, more and even more is better”.
Timballi are festive, celebratory, splendid dishes that only the really wealthy could afford – it was food to impress. In the famous 1958 Italian novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), set in mid 19th century Sicily there is this memorable description of the timballo offered by the grand Prince Salina to his guests at his ball:
“When three lackeys in green, gold and powder entered, each holding a great silver dish containing a towering macaroni pie, only four of the twenty at table avoided showing pleased surprise….Good manners apart, though, the aspect of those monumental dishes of macaroni was worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of the sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.” (The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translation by Archibald Colquhoun).