Four years ago, Michael and Gabriela Sampino of Sacramento Italian deli and lunch spot Sampino’s Towne Foods needed a statement dish for their new concept – an eight-course, prix fixe dinner on Friday nights.
“We were kind of trying to do a big night” for the restaurant, Gabriela Sampino said. Up to that point, they only had served lunch.
Good thing there is a film, called “Big Night,” available to provide inspiration. The Sampinos modeled part of their meal after that 1996 film, which centers on a pair of Italian-born restaurateurs (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) in 1950s New Jersey who pull out all the stops making a dinner for singer Louis Prima.
The showcase piece of that cinematic dinner is a timpano – a drum-shaped, pastry-covered pie packed with meats, pasta and more.
So for that first dinner, Michael Sampino made the dish for which Sampino’s would become best-known. Sampino’s made a similarly stuffed and drum-shaped pie called a timbale (Gabriela Sampino is half Italian, but born in Mexico).
The F Street restaurant’s timbale contains “everything but the kitchen sink,” Michael Sampino said, housed in puff pastry. Preparing the pie, which is a densely packed 7 inches tall and 13 inches in diameter, takes about about 6 1/2 hours, including a four-hour cool-down period. That preparation period grows in length if one considers the time it takes to make the marinara sauce and meatballs in the mix.
The marinara covers penne pasta that joins the meatballs, and hard-boiled eggs, inside the drum. Additional egg is used to bind the filling, which also includes salami, fresh mozzarella and provolone.
Those Friday-night dinners often sold out, and word quickly spread about the timbale. The Sampinos began making them by special order for patrons to take home, for $100 a pop.
The pie became a popular option for holiday parties. Though the pies can be ordered all year, the biggest sales period by far is during the holiday season, Gabriela Sampino said.
The Sampinos just transformed what had been a cellphone repair shop next to their place into a beer and wine bar. They began serving dinner there a few weeks ago: From 5 to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, diners can choose items from a non-prix fixe menu.
The timbale is not on that menu, but Sampino’s still does its reservation-only “big nights” – the eight-course dinners that run a bargain $45 to $50, once a month. The next one is Friday. People who stop by the deli on Saturday might be able to buy a leftover slice.
Or, if they call three days ahead, they can order a whole pie for a holiday gathering, intact or presliced. One timbale can yield 45 slim yet substantial pieces.