The Fuss over the Feast

The Bottiglieri Family on my mother's side. My grandfather is in the seated row, far left and my grandmother is in the seated row second one in from the right.

When December comes rolling around, without fail I reflect on the days when our family was much bigger, we all lived closer and the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes was a celebration that family and friends looked forward to each year. My grandparents on my mother's side, Renee and Frank were the hosts for this holiday tradition. Family memories and traditions of Christmas past were all wrapped up into each dish defining for us Baby Boomers and Generation X's their culinary traditions.

Grandfather, Frank Bottiglieri and Grandmother, Renee Bottiglieri on their wedding day.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian Christmas celebration that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes, however, some have been known to make 7-13 dishes; we made about 10. This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. In our family it was more like the wait for the linguini. We would begin feasting at 9pm and by midnight the linguini with calamari, clams, mussels, lobster and shrimp in a marinara sauce would grace the table.

The fuss over the feast would begin weeks in advance as my grandparents would order all the fish. The preparation of the Baccala, salted preserved cod, began days before. This would entail my grandmother soaking the cod in a large pot in the bathtub, changing the water and adding ice at intervels for a day or so until it was ready to make into a salad. Back in those days my grandparents had a "show bathroom" one that was not used. The only item that ever found its way to the tub was the Baccala. My grandmother was not fond of fish except for shrimp. I would hear her mumble under her breath as she prepared the marinara sauce for the linguini, "Your grandfather likes to make work for me with this stinking fish!"

The truth is my grandparents always made a fuss in preparing this holiday feast for family and friends. I even recall as a child on one Christmas Eve when my grandmother and my great Aunt Millie were dishing out linguini with lobsters for the town of Dobbs Ferry, NY. My Grandfather who was a butcher by trade owned a "mom and pop" butcher and grocery store in Dobbs Ferry. He was nicknamed "Barney" because he wore glasses and resembled a comic strip character at that time named Barney Google who had Googly Eyes. I personally would have called him the "Mayor" considering everyone in the town stopped by his shop for a chat or a pork chop. He was always into the more eccentric dishes of Chrstmas Eve and it was his job to prepare the marinated eel, scungilli salad, seafood salad and the fried smelts.

My grandfather in his Butcher and Grocery Store in Dobbs Ferry, NY. His Nickname was "Barney"

Other items prepared were the shrimp cocktail, fried calamari, baked clams and the Infamous Minestra which means soup in Italian. This soup is more like a side dish but that is what my Grandparents called it and so we keep the name for the sake of the tradition. This dish kicks off the Christmas Eve Feast and is made with escarole, black olives, raisins, pignoli nuts, olive oil and the secret ingredient, anchovies. These ingredients are layered in a large soup pot over low heat for a few hours and cooked down, without stirring. My grandmother once scolded me for stirring the Minestra, as if I committed some sort of a crime. So please - DO NOT STIR!! The layering of these ingredients creates a unique condensed flavor profile of salty and sweet. The saltiness of the anchovies complements the sweetness of the raisins perfectly, a must try. The recipe is provided below. 

A notable side dish was olive salad which was my grandmother's absolute favorite. She would chop a variety of olives into bits, mix with hearts of celery and their fronds, and add a little olive oil and pepper. She also made fried artichoke hearts and cardone which is also known as burdockMy grandmother was not fond of making the cardone as it turns your hands black. Cardone is a traditional dish, made by Italians for the Christmas Eve Feast and is absolutely delicious! 

Grandmother fixing the Christmas Eve Table

We had a few Italian desserts and my grandmother was in charge of the candied almonds, struffoli made of fried pastry honey balls, cenci made of fried pastry ribbons with powdered sugar, pizzelle which is a round flat waffle cookie and the anisette cookies which were made with a drop of anisette liquor for flavor and topped with lemon sugar glaze.

My grandfather made the ricotta cheese cake which happens to be the best my family and friends have ever had. It was moist, luscious and there was this custard like citrus infused bottom that would occur. I guess it was the way my grandfather separated the eggs, whipping the whites to full peeks and folding them with the yolks ever so gently with the ricotta, sugar and the zest of lemon and orange. We are still trying to master his recipe and sincerely believe it was how he carefully handled the ingredients like a pastry chef. I suppose him being a butcher may have had something to do with his precision and care. I wish I could have another day to watch my grandfather make this delicacy. Until a miracle occurs I will be practicing.

My mother was in charge of the Cheese Dainties. Oh, the memories in making these cookies, it was a 24 hour marathon. My brother John and I every year would help my mother whip the cream cheese, butter, and flour then dollop a variety of choice preserves in the middle. When baked we would sprinkle the top with powdered sugar. There was flour, preserves and powdered sugar everywhere! It took my mother days to clean, however It was the one culinary activity that we prepared for the Christmas Feast that made us laugh and be together. My mother had a circa 1950's GE oven. The previous owners of the house won a Pillsbury Bakeoff, winning a remodeled kitchen including appliances and the oven was part of that award. The GE oven remained in our kitchen until 2009. During it's later years, the oven would work for short periods of time and unfortunately after numerous attempts to fix it was retired of it’s oven duties. The “shell” of the oven door now hangs on the wall in her living room as an art piece because she had a very hard time parting with it.

My mother with her circa 1950's GE Oven Door which hangs on her wall as an art piece.

Today, our family makes a variety of these recipes. My brother continues the tradition on the west coast in Bend, Oregon with his son Sage and his significant other Jenny. They invite their extended family of friends to their dinner table for the linguini and other culinary additions to form their own traditions. Here on the east coast, we either celebrate at my mother's house in Hawthorne, NY or my aunt and uncles in Weston, CT. We make the Minestra, baked clams, fried calamari, linguini. The biggest challenge remains, the ricotta cheese cake.

The fuss over any feast should be cherished. We take some of the old and blend it with the new, just like we have done with making the Timpano for the past three Thanksgivings. Food traditions define for us a time and place with memories that hold a rich history about our heritage.

My husband Chris, Trixie our dog and I posing at our construction site for Sheridan Green.

Next year a new place and tradition for the Christmas Eve Feast will be held at our new home Sheridan Green in Hampton Bays, NY. The one wish I have is that my grandparents on both sides would be alive and our families can be in one place to celebrate old traditions which will be mingled with the new. Maybe by then we will have mastered the ricotta cheese cake. Happy Holidays and Happy Feasting!

Minestra Recipe


  • 4 large escarole bunches
  • 2 cup pitted black olives
  • 1/2 can anchovies
  • 3/4 cup pignoli nuts
  • 1.5 cups of raisins
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste


  1. Chop the Escarole in medium size pieces and clean thoroughly with cold water. I find soaking the escarole and rinsing about 3 times helps remove the sand.
  2. Cut the black olives into 1/4 inch disks and chop anchovies into small pieces.
  3. In a large stock pot over low heat begin to layer the ingredients; 4 cups of escarole and half the remaining items. Then Repeat.
  4. Cook for 2-3 hours until the ingredients are rendered down and a broth occurs.

The longer you cook this down the better. Check on it once in awhile that you are not burning it, but DO NOT STIR! Serves 6-8

Timpano, a Thanksgiving Tradition

Typically, the Thanksgiving Turkey is the highlight of one of the most indulgent days of the year. 3 years ago the Timpano trumped its way to being the star at our Thanksgiving Table. This dish was inspired by the 1996 movie Big Night, about a failing Italian restaurant run by two brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) who gambles on one special night to try to save the business. They plunge themselves into preparations for this "big night", spending their last savings on the food and inviting dozens of people to join them in an amazing feast centered around the timpano (which means eardrum in Italian). Below is a clip from the movie Big Night. 

It all started three years ago with a group of friends at the local dog park who wanted to have a dinner party themed after the movie Big Night, where we would watch the movie and bring dishes which were reflected in the movie. I took on the challenge of making the Timpano and began my research in preparing this dish a month in advance by purchasing the book, Cucina & Famiglia, where the Tucci's family recipe for the Timpano resides. My first attempt at making the Timpano was exactly by the book and since then I have made it my own; tweaking the recipe to the point where Thanksgiving guests from year to year have noticed the subtle differences and have become connoisseurs in their own right of this anticipated dish. I can relate first hand to the drama associated with creating a Timpano; "Is their enough sauce?" "Is the pasta al dente enough?" "Is their enough meatballs?" "Is it done?" "Will the Timpano stick to the drum when flipped over?" "Is it better than the last one"? The fuss and anticipation of the Timpano has become part of our Thanksgiving Feast and is worth every moment in creating this celebrated dish.

The making of the Timpano

Making the Timpano is time consuming and I recommend preparing a few days ahead of time. Once you make your first Timpano you may find yourself creating your own takes on the dish. My recipe has been evolving for three years now and the one provided below has been the best yet!



  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup water reserved


  1. Place flour, eggs, salt and olive oil in a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.
  2. Add 3 tbsp water and process. If needed continue adding water 1 tbsp at a time, up to 1/2 cup, until the mixture comes together and forms a ball.
  3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead into a smooth ball.
note: dough can be made 1 day in advance. Wrap in plastic wrap and store in refrigerator. Take out of the refrigerator an hour before use.



  • 6 garlic cloves whole
  • 1 medium white onion chopped
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 2 cans of chopped and peeled tomatos
  • 2 cans of tomato pureé
  • 4 large basil leaves
  • 3 sweet Italian Sausage
  • 3 spicy Italian Sausage
  • 2 cups of water
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 4 tbsp of Olive Oil


  1. Place 4 tbsp of Olive Oil in deep sauce pan over medium heat. Once the oil is heated place the sausages in pot and brown evenly on all sides and remove.
  2. Lower the heat to low and place garlic in pot for about 15 minutes until the garlic is soft but not brown. You simply want to infuse the oil with the garlic. Remove the garlic and place with the sausage.
  3. Bring the heat back up to medium and saute´the onions until translucent and then place the tomato paste in and cook for 2 more minutes.
  4. Then put the cans of tomato pureé and chopped into the pot with the garlic and then add the 2 cups of water.
  5. If you have a hand immersion blender use to pureé the sauce in the pot. You want the sauce to be smooth for the Timpano.
  6. Then place in the sausages, basil, salt and pepper to taste and cook for about 2 hours.
note: the sauce can be done 2 days in advance and stored in refrigerator. Take out of the refrigerator an hour before use.

Little Meatballs


  • 1 pound ground beef, veal and pork
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 large egg
  • 5 tablespoons finely grated pecorino Romano cheese
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 10 (1-inch thick) slices Italian bread


  1. Arrange bread on cookie sheet and allow it to dry out for 3 days before use.
  2. Place dried bread in a bowl; add warm water to cover. Set aside 5 minutes until bread softens.
  3. In another bowl, combine meat mixture, parsley, garlic, egg, cheese, salt and pepper; use your hands to mix. 
  4. Squeeze water out of bread and break it into small pieces. Work bread into meat until combined and the mixture holds together like soft dough. 
  5. Warm olive oil in a large frying pan set over medium-high heat. Make 1 inch meatballs round and cook for 6 minutes until well-browned on all sides. (do not cook all the way through as it will cook in the Timpano).
note: the meatballs can be done a day in advance and stored in refrigerator. Take out of the refrigerator an hour before use.


An hour before assembling the Timpano you want to make sure all your ingredients are prepped and ready to go. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.


  • 2 cups sharp Provolone cheese, cut in 1/2-by-1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup finely grated pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 cup of ricotta cheese
  • 12 hard-boiled eggs, shelled, and quartered lengthwise
  • 2 cups little Meatballs (recipe above)
  • 2 cups of sausages, cut in 1/2-by-1/2-inch pieces
  • 7.5 cups of sauce (recipe above), plus 1/2 cup of water
  • 3 pounds ziti, cooked very al dente (half the time) 18 cups of pasta for the Timpano
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 pat of butter and 1 tbsp olive oil to coat the enamel bowl


note: If the Timpano sticks to the bowl simply slide a knife along the edge. I have never had an issue with sticking so make sure you generously grease your Timpano bowl. 
You should be able to see the pasta patterns on the dough, if not that means your dough may be slightly too thick.


  1. Bring a pot of well salted water to boil to accomodate 3 pounds of pasta and cook the ziti for only half the time so it is very al dente. Strain pasta and run under cool water to stop the cooking.
  2. Pour 1.5 cups of the reserved sauce plus half cup of water on the ziti and combine.
  3. Generously grease timpano enamel bowl with butter and olive.
  4. Flatten dough on a lightly floured work surface. Dust top of dough with flour and roll it out, dusting with flour and flipping the dough over from time to time, until it is 1/16-inch thick and is the desired diameter. Should be about 24 inches in diameter.
  5. Fold dough in half and then in half again, to form a triangle, and place it in the pan. Open dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and the sides, draping the extra dough over the sides.
  6. Distribute 6 generous cups of the pasta on the bottom of the timpano. Top with 1 cup of sausage, 1 cup of provolone, 6 hard-boiled eggs, 1 cup meatballs, 1/2 cup of ricotta and 1/2 cup Romano Cheese. Pour 2 cups ragu over these ingredients.
  7. Repeat step 7 and then top with the remainder 6 cups of pasta. The ingredients should be about 1 inch below the rim of the bowl.
  8. Pour 2 cups of ragu over the pasta and the 4 beaten eggs over filling.
  9. Fold pasta dough over filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough.
  10. Place in oven for 1 hour. Check the Timpano frequently to make sure the top does not burn but should be golden brown.
  11. After 1 hour of cooking place tinfoil over the Timpano and cook for another 1/2 hour.
  12. Remove from oven and let cool for about 30 minutes. Say a prayer and then place a wooden board on top of the Timpano and flip the bowl over so the board is then at the bottom and then remove the bowl.
  13. The Timpano should sit for 2 hours before serving. If you cut the Timpano when it is hot it will fall apart.
  14. Using a long, sharp knife, cut a circle about 3 inches in diameter in the center of the timpano,making sure to cut all the way through to the bottom. Then slice the timpano as you would a pie into individual portions, leaving the center circle as a support for the remaining pieces. Makes Approximately 20 servings.
Happy Holidays and Timpano Making!