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Ersatz Italian

Francis Albert would have loved this place? Not a chance.
Stephen P. Karlisch

What the film Pulp Fiction is to tersely cogent dialogue, Big Night is to food. Big food. Great food. Food assembled with painstaking and uncompromising joy. Big Night is a film where food stars as lyrical verse, the kind that seduces, inspires and casts off potent metaphors as it warms the belly before its heat is snuffed out with a cool splash of wine.

Big Night is the story of two Italian immigrant brothers who struggle to operate a restaurant in 1950s America, and it has more scenes of perfect feasting than most multiplex fodder has car chases. There's a scene starring a perfect omelette, and another a perfect seafood risotto that's viciously threatened by a side of spaghetti and meatballs. But the most perfect of Big Night's perfect feasts stars a timpano, a drum-shaped hulk that when cut reveals its compelling strata and draws sighs of rapture from the film's diners.

Timpano, or timballo di maccheroni, is a pastry crust jammed with pasta, ragu, meatballs, peas, chicken and mozzarella. The mass of ingredients is assembled and cooked in layers. So elaborate and symphonic is timpano that its creation requires at least one whole day for ingredient-gathering and another for preparation. It makes a lavish Thanksgiving feast seem as complicated as a Jiffy Pop and Colt 45 movie snack.

The wonder is why a corporate behemoth like Carlson Restaurants Worldwide (via its Emerging Brands division, i.e. Samba Room, Taqueria Cañonita, Mignon and zen den/Fishbowl) would disguise its excuse to serve steak and chops with a red wine chaser as a cinematic culinary triumph. The steak at Carlson's Timpano Italian Chophouse doesn't even rise to Dallas steakhouse standards, let alone Big Night standards. Requested medium rare, the New York strip was more gray than pink. It was stringy and flush with that livery taste you stumble upon when the natural beef richness is old and tired. A side of Gorgonzola mashed potatoes was fluffy and rich in the tiny pocket where the Gorgonzola was parked, but elsewhere it was just mashed potatoes. Appreciating the full vigor requires a little tableside fork whipping.

Our other beef beef centered on the carpaccio. Not that there was anything wrong with the flesh itself. Indeed, the red sheet of meat was tender, silken and freshly cool, but instead of the typical creation with capers, onion and a lemon-mayo sauce, the Timpano version was scattered with clumsy chunks of asparagus and a couple of lemon wedges. And though the menu listed capers in a supporting role, we found exactly one green bud on our red meat sheet and could detect no olive oil. Parmesan cheese was applied in perfectly cut rectangular strips instead of gently scattered shavings. It looked like the scalp off the top of a chef's salad.

If it isn't yet evident, Timpano the chophouse is several noodle layers shy of a perfect feasting scene. Start first with the ambiance. Timpano is a corporate cookie-cutter rumba of dusky lighting, wrought-iron chandeliers, noise, curvaceous bar footage, acres of dark wood, velvet drapes and plush quaff-and-pass-out bar seating. A painted portrait of a top-hat-wearing Frank Sinatra hovers above the requisite fireplace. Maybe that's what drove one reviewer to harp, "Old Blue Eyes would have loved this." Doubt it.

Timpano's dining room is a symmetrical patchwork of tables surrounded by clubby leather banquettes buffered from each other by shelves holding clusters of magnums and jeroboams of red wine. To infuse a little stiffness into this nostalgic hoary New York/Chicago supper-club mush, Timpano inserts live jazz into the bar on weekends. On the first visit, our stroll to the bar was scored by mean tenor sax riffs ripping from a corner in the bar where a quartet was positioned. The guy on the reed blew smooth solos that snaked ahead of the beat, as if he had been swallowing John Coltrane since toddlerhood. Unfortunately, this was the sum total of the inspiration found at Timpano.

What exactly is Timpano? Is it an Italian culinary masterpiece with a few steaks, or is it a nightclub with a few chops and steaks thinly framed with pasta to retain a semblance of ethnic flair? It's not hard to tell once you get past the name. Instead of a lexicon of silky, heady Italian wines, Timpano has a mostly California wine list merely pimpled with an Italian bottle here and there. The bar seems more bedazzled with martinis, high balls and Italian Surfers with an Attitude than it does Barolos, Barbarescos, brunellos, Chianti classicos and grappas.

So why is this Carlson automaton named after a complex pasta dish? Hard to say, except that maybe the sound struck a chord with the focus groups. That seems the most likely explanation when you consider the cutesy slogans stenciled all over the dining room including "Red wine for the mind, red meat for the body, red lips for the soul" and "Life Luck Love." Timpano has borrowed the worst ambient idiosyncrasies of Fishbowl, ditties that would drive Old Blue Eyes into a grave roll. Striped on the soffit ringing the dining room are the names of Italian wines and dishes done up in yellowish block letters.

Yet what's amusing is the restaurant didn't seem to have many of the things listed on that soffit, or at least feature them. Like the name, these items are merely slogans used to dress up the steaks and chops in a bit of worldly sophistication. This kind of casual flinging of terms rubs off onto the menu. Timpano's veal piccata, for example, is a hard thing to figure out. Piccata is among the simplest of dishes to prepare, consisting of thin escalope of veal lightly floured and quickly seared and bathed in a sauce of pan drippings and lemon and parsley. Timpano's version was composed with a relatively thick (by piccata standards) strip of veal. The gristly, spongy meat was encased in a dense layer of flour that gave it a kind of furry texture in the mouth. Plus, it was hard to pull any lemon flavor from the sauce, which in dim light resembled chocolate milk.

Timpano's caprese, which features house-made mozzarella, was a diligent effort derailed in execution. After sampling countless renditions of this fresh salad composition created with richer, more flavorful buffalo mozzarella, it's hard to take the simple cow mozzarella version of this salad seriously, house-made or not. The cheese is simply too bland. The tomato slices here were juicy, though not rich. Yet the basil was so sparsely applied it was hard to pull any herbal flavor out of it.

Perhaps the most rewarding entrée tried here was the grilled grouper with northern beans and zucchini in a garlic-tomato broth. Though the fish was slightly spongy in places, it was a fresh and tender cut, and the aromatic sauce proved a swell fish bath.

Though the service is friendly and gracious, it is haphazard with jerky pacing. Yet it's possible to prod the staff into pushing the service envelope. On one visit, we brought a pair of finicky 6-year-olds who would have none of Timpano's all-American meat fare dressed up in Italian baubles. We'd spied a cheeseburger on the lunch menu that was given to us by a hostess to keep us occupied while we waited for a table. It turned out the cheeseburger was the ticket. But our server grumbled a bit, and a manager came back and said the kitchen couldn't prepare a cheeseburger because the thing wasn't prepped. He suggested a couple of pasta dishes, which were roundly rejected. When pressed, he agreed to make our cheeseburger happen.

It was a hulk of a thing upholstered in thick sheets of cheese. Cut in half and split between the two children, the burger was juicy and rich, while the piles of shoestring fries off to the side were crisp and delicious.

Maybe it's ironic that Timpano reaches its zenith with a burger and fries. Maybe it's more American than it suggests and less sophisticated than it cares to admit. One thing is for sure: It has more than a few of its ducks rowed, judging by the crowds clamoring to get into the place. In the real world, you can be driven into destitution plying great food. Then again, as the main character in the Big Night says: "To eat good food is to be close to God." At Timpano we felt a couple of steps down on the purgatory escalator.


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