In the depths of a dull and foggy January we'd been invited to Vashon Island's renowned farm-to-table restaurant La Boucherie for a feast inspired by the 1996 movie "Big Night."
The film is the story of two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo and Secondo. Their Jersey Shore restaurant is failing because 1950s America is unprepared for chef Primo's authentic dishes. Customers demand spaghetti and meatballs with their risotto all milanese while the uncompromising Primo fumes in the kitchen. In desperation Secondo, the practical-minded manager, accepts a rival restauranteur's offer to invite bandleader Louis Prima to the brothers' restaurant to generate publicity. Primo pours his entire artistic being into this do-or-die evening. The meal's centerpiece is timpano, a monumental baked pasta dish the size and shape of the kettledrum for which it's named.
Like most Americans I claim to love Italian food but rarely eat it the way it should be served. Usually it's rushed plate of rotini and a glass of Trader Joe's prosecco while fast-forwarding through commercials. Or a Starbucks panino between meetings.
In Italy, a meal is meant to be savored over hours in good company. To eat Italian food as as we do is akin to walking away from the Thanksgiving table after a plate of stuffing, leaving your friends, family and the steaming turkey behind.
La Boucherie's invitation was a chance to pay Italian cuisine the respect it deserves. But....timpano? This imposing edifice consists of layers of pasta, hard-boiled eggs, meat sauce, more pasta, more eggs, and more meat sauce, heaped into a culinary cupola more suited to the nutritional needs of a World Cup soccer team than a middle-aged office worker. Maybe I'd just focus on the other courses.
The guests started trickling in to La Boucherie as sunset turned a foggy sky to gold. Most of us had no more than the nodding aquaintance that comes from the occasional exchange of glances over newspapers and smartphones on the commuter ferry to Seattle. We shouldered off our coats by the charcuterie case and peered over each other's shoulders into the dining room, where a long communal table had been set.
We seated ourselves made tentative introductions, then began filling plates with assorted antipasti. Tangy tomme cheese and soft, salty ribbons of house-made prosciutto:
Fava beans with curls of sharp Parmiggiano Reggiano:
Pasta and marinated vegetables, with slices of Vashon's famous "Bill's Bread," the kind that for years only friends of friends could get:
More cheese, with pear slices:
Servers refilled glasses of 2010 Chateau Ducasse Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux. Conversations began to sprout branches from the sturdy old trunks of island topics like wells, power outages and ferries: "This prosciutto is as good as what we had in Milan last year!" "I tried raising carrots like these once, but the deer had other ideas." "You really have a singing telegram business?"
More wine. Now came big bowls of Zuppa di Minestrone, a fragrant rich vegetable stew. The conversation ebbed a bit as the guests twisted off pieces of bread to soak up every drop.
By the time the Italian Flag Risotto appeared the first doubts began to surface. Perhaps I'd failed to pace myself properly?
But who could say no to such a beautiful dish? Perfectly tender rice, rich with Parmiggiano and colored with vegetables. A sip of 2009 Fattoria di Felsina, Castello di Farnetella Chianti, Castelnuovo Beradegna, Italy (the same wine served in the movie) and all was well. Now, what was my new acquaintance across the table saying about the picnic at KVI Beach?
In the movie, Primo and Secondo had also begun to have doubts. Their restaurant was filled with their neighbors: The shy florist and the expansive Cadillac salesman. The wizened old lady and the bombshell girlfriend. Wine flowed, music poured from the hi-fi, and the conversation had grown as animated as the hand gestures. But where was Louis Prima? He's coming, he's coming, assures the rival restauranteur, helping himself to more risotto. Primo pokes his head out of the kitchen door and says, "Let's eat!"
And on Vashon, eat we did. Pork Rib Ragu with Rigatoni was an unexpected combination, with dissolvingly-tender meat. My husband poked it thoughtfully with a fork. "I'm trying to reverse-engineer it," he whispered, "but I don't think I can ever make anything this good at home." "Mmmpf," I replied.
Then the moment arrived.
The timpano appeared, cradled in the arms of its creator for a formal presentation before going under the knife back in the kitchen.
This was it. The culinary equivalent of New Year's Eve in Times Square or running with the bulls in Pamplona. Something you do once in your life for bragging rights in perpetuity. When you define yourself as serious or Olive Garden. I turned to Steve. "I'll take a slice."
And as Hemingway might say, it was good. Very very good. Bright with tomatoes, soft with pasta, rich with eggs and meatballs. Bite after melting bite, the timpano disappeared by forkfuls until nothing was left but plate.
At this point in the movie Isabella Rossellini is lying on top of the table while the other guests are dancing in a rapturous swirl of contentment and fellowship. La Boucherie's customers, being from the Pacific Northwest rather than New Jersey, remained seated but no less enchanted. We laughed, we talked, we snapped pictures, acutely aware of sharing a remarkable experience here on our own tiny speck of rock in Puget Sound while the rest of the world raced heedlessly by.
A glass of 2011 Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir from Oregon and it somehow there was room for just a smidgen of beef tenderloin....
....and a dab of Roasted Pork with Winter Vegetables, with a sip of 2009 Otanon, Rioja Crianza, Aldanueva de Ebro from Spain:
Finally it was time for traditional Italian cakes, tarts & tiramisu...
...and crackling homemade biscotti with fiery Clear Creek grappa.
If you want to know whether Louis Prima ever made it to Primo and Secondo's restaurant you'll have to rent the movie. In the end, it didn't matter to their customers any more than it would have mattered to us at La Boucherie. The Big Night wasn't about money or celebrity or even timpano. It was about love: For artistry, for friends old and new, and for your community, whether it's a little island in the Pacific Northwest or the Jersey Shore or anywhere else in the world.
We stepped out of the restaurant's embrace in a warm bubble of laughter and Louis Prima music. Our goodbyes and thank yous condensed into clouds that floated up into the crisp air above Vashon into a night thick with stars.