Among the more curious lessons I've learned through entertaining at home, the strangest has to be the conceptual link between Hooters waitresses, knife-flipping Benihana chefs and three-liter jeroboams of the elegant 2006 Sesti Brunello di Montalcino. In short: Dining, even at home, has an element of theater, in which props and visuals can have unexpected effects on pleasure.
This all started with a friend telling me about "large format" dinner parties, where a group of people pool their dollars to buy and share terrific wines in giant bottles: six-liter methuselahs, nine-liter salmanazars, even 15-liter nebuchadnezzars. To match, they make "large-format" food as well, such as the old Italian polenta maneuver in which Grandma covers the dinner table with cooked cornmeal and tells Mom to pass the sauce.
"Timballo!" said my friend and cooking buddy Ignazio when I told him of this concept, and of my nagging sense that we'd have to try it. Born in Milan and now working in San Francisco as a software designer, Ignazio has a wonderfully thick accent. One hears it most acutely when he says the word crazy, as in, "Timballo is a crazy sort of medieval-like baked pasta-pie type thing, with all kinds of crazy things baked inside." He also has a particular genius for the word fantastic, which he tends to rip out like an ecstatic war cry: "This party, Dan, it sounds fan-TAS-teeck. We should do it, and timballo is perfect."
Because Ignazio and I roll like this, we picked a date immediately and began corralling guests—lots of guests, to support the sheer largeness of our dream. He started researching timballo recipes, reaching out to friends in the old country, demanding they shake down 90-year-old nonnas for secrets.
My own job was to canvas San Francisco wine shops for big bottles. Everybody had magnums—1.5 liters, two standard bottles' worth—but we needed something truly huge to bust our evening out of the mundane and kick it over into the freakishly fun. That's how I discovered the two most salient facts about large-format wine: First, it ages more slowly and evenly than wine in smaller containers, and second, most of it gets sold months in advance. Even the finest of retailers in my wine-besotted city stocked precious few oversize bottles.
At first, it felt like a nightmare: With only about 10 choices, most too young for drinking and none cheap, I panicked and started obsessing over critics' scores and reviews, foolishly chasing the absolute optimal selection. But then I remembered one of the core truths of the wine-loving life: No matter how much a bottle costs, it's still just fermented juice put on this earth to make us happy. Seen in that light, the limited selection felt like a blessing. I quickly zeroed in on the aforementioned 2006 Brunello, a 100-percent Sangiovese imported by the great Kermit Lynch and produced by an eccentric Venetian astronomer practicing strict natural-winemaking techniques.
As for the timballo, it turned out to be the turducken of pastas, the Russian matryoshka doll of carbohydrates, the Italian version of a British meat pie, except with pasta on the inside and far greater regional variation. Crust materials range from pizza dough to baked risotto, while traditional fillings run from tortellini to ziti to sweet custard to veal sweetbreads.
Ignazio arrived at my home early on the day of our feast. Putting first things first, we uncorked that Brunello, "just to let it breathe." We did share a teensy-weensy taste, of course, "only for tracking its evolution, you know, as it opens up throughout the day." Then we organized materials for not one, not two, but three big timballi: first, a Neapolitan version best characterized as pasta Bolognese baked inside a pie crust with heaps of mozzarella and Parmesan; second, a version of mysterious origin involving pigeon breast, beef meatballs, pork sausage, porcini mushrooms, chicken livers, lard, pancetta, English peas, hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella and Parmesan; and lastly, a 19th-century Sicilian version mentioned in Italian novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo, made famous by Visconti's 1963 film version. This last timballo, which I tackled on my own, included dry ziti (broken with bare hands), meat from half a boiled chicken, prosciutto cotto, black truffle, eight quail eggs, a cinnamon-tinted sweet custard—and mozzarella and Parmesan.
I often feel that I come to understand a recipe only through the physical process of cooking it, putting my own limbs through those moves. In this case, I felt the nature of the old Southern Italian pantry, the products a family might have had on hand. Layering them into pie crust and sealing the top, I felt the fundamental generosity of the thing, the humility and love and commitment to comforting pleasures.
As for theatrical effect, the timballi and the jeroboam were quite distinct. On the faces of all our friends, I could see a sense of intrigue, mystery: Who knew what treasures lay hidden beneath those crusts? The jeroboam, by contrast, the size and weight of a nine-month-old baby, was all about communal hedonism, the potent joy of drinking from the same grand source, like Catholic communion-takers sharing a chalice, except in celebration—rather than expiation—of sin.
Considered jointly, however, the timballi and jeroboam communicated a single, coherent message. They were so symbiotically delicious—all that rich comfort brightened by the Sangiovese's pure, fresh acidity—that uninhibited feasting and drinking felt like the only moral response to the bounty before us. Life is short and friends are dear, bottle-and-pie seemed to say, and we simply owe it to one another to savor every last mouthful. This message was so clearly understood by everyone present that a giddy, anticipatory hush quieted the table as my wife tipped up the jeroboam for the final time. Up and up she lifted that great bottle's back end, higher and higher, with nothing coming out until—deep gasping all around, one collective breath sucking inward—that final drop slipped out, splashed into her empty glass and provoked a spontaneous table-wide cheer.
Daniel Duane is a frequent contributor to F&W. His last story was on chef Blaine Wetzel and the Willows Inn (Sept. 2012).
How to Shop for Large-Format Wines
Buying tips from sommelier Michael Madrigale of Bar Boulud in New York City.
Go Big, But Not too Big
"Jeroboams are the new magnums," says Madrigale, who thinks the jeroboam (equivalent to four regular bottles) offers the perfect balance between "visually striking and actually functional. Any bigger, and it's too hard to handle."
Look for the Unexpected
Most big-bottle hunters are after older, blue-chip reds, but Madrigale loves wines from unexpected (and less expensive) areas, like Chablis, Muscadet and Beaujolais. "The big bottle preserves the wine's really juicy, hedonistic quality. It tastes exactly like it does in the barrel."
Give Old Wines Their Time
If you do buy an older vintage, know that large bottles age more slowly. "A wine that needs five to eight years to mature in a regular bottle will need eight to 10 in a jeroboam."
Let it Breathe
It's important to uncork big bottles well in advance of drinking them. In most cases, Madrigale also decants—or double-decants the wine, pouring it into a pitcher, then back into the bottle.
If stores in your area don't stock large formats, try klwines.com, kermitlynch.com or crushwineco.com.
Image Credit: Peter Arkle