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Recreating Big Night’s Iconic Italian Feast in Denver

A chalkboard sign welcomes diners.

Welcoming diners to JWU Denver’s epic “Big Night” feast.

How do you celebrate 20 years of the epic food film “Big Night”?

At the end of January, JWU Denver College of Culinary Arts chef-instructors (Robert Corey, Kevin Kester, Michael Angelo and Taylor Cookingham ), students (more than 20) and one alumni chef (Ian Wortham '12 of Frasca) recreated the iconic Italian feast that serves as the centerpiece of the movie — and they invited more than 25 alumni and assorted guests to join in the fun. (Presumably, Louis Prima was unavailable.)

In a recent appreciation of “Big Night” for The Guardian, Matt Gross notes that the film helped kick off a “revolution in Amerian food culture,” primarily “that there was more to the cuisine than red sauce.”

The very specific pacing of an Italian meal — an antipasti followed by a pasta, then a main, then a dessert — was new to Americans in the 1950s, when the movie takes place. (The uncompromising chef Primo, played by Tony Shalhoub, has a meltdown when a customer innocently asks for a side of spaghetti and meatballs with her risotto. “They are both starch!” he shrieks to his long-suffering brother, Secundo.)

JWU alum and Del Posto executive chef Mark Ladner '90 told Gross that, although he thinks of himself as a Primo (that is, a traditionalist), “I respect both sides of the conversation.”

Somewhere in the middle of that conversation is the timpano (or timballo), an epic baked pasta dish that is open to endless interpretation. Notes Gross,

Del Posto’s version ($100, serves four) is wrapped not in noodles but in focaccia dough, uses escarole leaves to keep the interior moist, and is scooped out to serve, rather than dramatically sliced, as in the movie.

“If it was to form a slice,” said Ladner, “it would have to be so dry and bound with so much egg that it doesn’t actually eat very well.”

The JWU Denver Big Feast stayed fairly traditional with a sliceable timpano. Here’s the full menu:

THE MENU

Antipasti
Pancetta, mozzarella, & risotto arancini
Wild mushroom and goat cheese crostini
Bruschetta with spinach dip, aioli and olive tapenade

Primi
Braised short rib meatballs with creamy polenta
Zucchini fritters with bagna càuda
Chicken Milanese with asiago cheese and pesto
Stewed and fried calamari with spicy arrabbiata

Secundi
Timpano
Arugula, Romaine and parmesan salad
Tomato, mozzarella and basil with aged balsamic
Assorted Italian cheeses

Dolce
Pistachio, cherry and vanilla Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches
Ganache-glazed, chocolate, Italian whiskey cake
Plum clafouti

Related Reading
Mark Ladner + Other Alums on the Fine Art of Plating

Menu-planning goes on an epic whiteboard.

JWU Denver culinary students prep for the Big Feast. Right: Crostini appetizers.

Chef Robert Corey explains how to carefully slice the timpano.

Closeup of the sliced timpano.

JWU Denver chefs, students and alumni taking a bow after an amazing meal.

Topics: Culinary Arts Denver