Timballo: The Ultimate Italian Pasta Bake

This Sicilian pasta casserole is a rich and cheesy showstopper of a dish

Timballo: The Ultimate Italian Pasta Bake
Slice timballo into big wedges to serve. (Auttapol Sangsub/Shutterstock)

Timballo is a popular, if labor-intensive dish from Italy.

The name of this drum-shaped baked casserole comes from the French word “timbale,” which means “kettledrum.” The French word in turn has its origin in Arabic, which in turn evokes the giant drums used by the Janissaries, elite soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. The metal drums were used for sound as well as cooking.

Throughout Italy, its other names include “bomba” and “timpano.” Some readers may recall the popular 1996 movie “Big Night,” directed by Campbell Scot and Stanley Tucci, in which Italian immigrants in New Jersey prepare a timpano. This movie made the dish very popular in the United States.

Timballo is traditionally prepared in a deep, round copper bowl, filled with a range of ingredients most often encased in a pasta crust and baked. There are so many recipes for timballo, and a cook’s imagination can guide you. The filling can have endless variations of ingredients, while the outer crust can be made from pasta, rice, or even sliced vegetables.

This recipe is based on Sicilian cuisine, a familiar variation prepared by this writer.

You’ll need a 10-inch springform pan, for easy unmolding, or a 5-quart round casserole dish. The crust is made from a thin layer of fresh pasta sheets, briefly boiled and used to line the pan. The filling is a mix of more pasta—cooked penne, in this case—coated in a rich tomato-meat sauce made with sweet Italian sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, olives, and basil. Before sealing the mixture, you’ll add a layer of smoked mozzarella that will turn soft and creamy in the oven.

After being baked and unmolded, the finished dish is one that will surely impress. The texture might remind you of lasagna, and the taste is layered and rich, due to the number and variety of ingredients used—a delightful kettledrum of mixed goodies to break into and enjoy.

Timballo Siciliano

Serves 6

  • 1 pound fresh sweet, thin Italian sausage
  • 12 ounces dry penne
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus extra for greasing the pan
  • Two (10.75-ounce) cans tomato puree
  • 1 cup sliced black Kalamata olives
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil, plus extra sprigs for garnish
  • 1 pound fresh pasta sheets
  • 2 (8-ounce) balls smoked mozzarella, shredded
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into quarters, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Roast the Italian sausage on a baking sheet for 45 minutes, or until browned on the outside. Remove and cut into 1/2-inch segments.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt generously, and cook the penne according to package directions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.

In another large pot over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and brown the ground beef, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and set aside.

To the same pot, add another tablespoon of olive oil, followed by the sliced mushrooms, and pan-fry until soft, about 10 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Pour the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil into the pot, and swirl it around to coat; this will help prevent the sauce from sticking. Add the tomato puree, penne, sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, olives, basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, to ensure that the sauce doesn't stick to the bottom; if needed, add a bit more water.

Using the same pot you used to cook the penne, bring a fresh pot of water to a boil and cook the fresh pasta sheets, about 8 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease a 10-inch springform pan or 5-quart round casserole dish with olive oil. Line the bottom and sides of the pan with the cooked pasta sheets, making sure there are no gaps, so that the edges of the sheets stick out and hang over the sides. You should have about 5 to 7 inches of overhang, so you can later fold it over the filling to seal.

Spoon the pasta and tomato sauce mixture into the pan and distribute shredded mozzarella over the top. Cover the filling with the overhanging pasta sheets, and any remaining pasta sheets you have. The dish should be completely and uniformly covered from all sides. If you still have extra sheets left, tuck them into the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes. (Most of the ingredients are already fully cooked, so 30 minutes will be enough.)

Carefully remove the pan from the oven and let cool slightly for 10 to 15 minutes. Using kitchen towels (it will still be hot), unmold the timballo onto a large plate.

Decorate with sprigs of fresh basil and arrange the quartered hard-boiled eggs around the outside. Slice into wedges with a large knife and serve with a red wine.

Agostino von Hassell is based in New York. In addition to corporate consulting, he also writes about food and military and political histories. He recently co-authored “Caesar’s Great Success: Sustaining the Roman Army on Campaign.” See also the book’s Facebook page, Julius Caesar’s Recipes, and his website, AgostinoVonHassell.com