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Comfort Foods from Ada Boni

If Pellegrino Artusi can be considered the Dean of Italian cooking, Ada Boni is the Doyenne. Indeed, a modern editor might say that her title is more deserved; unlike Artusi, who was merely a gifted amateur, she taught the Art, and as a result her recipes are more precise: Though he often starts a recipe with something along the lines of "begin by mincing a half a small onion and the other requisite herbs," with the assumption that the cook will know both what they are (carrot, celery, and parsley) and the proportions (an equivalent volume of carrot, slightly less celery, and a couple of tablespoons of parsley), she never does. Rather, she begins her recipes by saying how many they will serve, and then lists all the ingredients. An American cookbook editor would likely object to her not always giving exact quantities, but Italians, who are used to seeing q.b. (quanto basta, enough) next to an ingredient in modern recipes, take her approximations in stride.

She was, after all, writing in 1929, and her book, Il Talismano della Felicità, caused a sensation: She presents more than 1100 recipes in text, followed by 89 color plates, each showing a dish and each with a recipe. A monumental work, in other words, and unlike Artusi, who stayed fairly close to home -- his native Emilia Romagna and his adopted Tuscany -- with occasional forays into other regional cuisines, Ada Boni really does cover the Peninsula, with dishes such as Zuppa alla Siracusana (a Fish soup from Syracuse), Fagioli alla Cavanesana (beans from Canavese, in Piemonte), or Ligurian mushrooms. It's true that the center of the Peninsula predominates, but then again she was Roman, and it's also true that some of the regional specialties are smoothed over somewhat, as Chinese dishes sometimes are in cookbooks aimed at the non-Chinese, but then again Italy's regional divisions were much more marked than they are now, and she was likely keeping the reactions of her students to the new and different in mind.

In addition to providing her readers with a great many tried-and-true classics, Ada Boni gave them a wide variety of recipes that may have been innovative in 1929 -- Artusi, who published the final edition of La Scienza in Cucina in 1910, doesn't suggest them -- but have by now become standards, including maccheroni ai quattro formaggi (macaroni with a four cheese sauce), cannelloni (manicotti in the US), or cotolette alla valdostana, veal cutlets topped with fontina, breaded, and fried. She also gives recipes that were and are suitable for entertaining guests, for example caviar, vol-au-vents filled with shrimp, breast of veal stuffed with mushrooms and served with a cream sauce, and crêpes suzette.

In short, Il Talismano was greeted with joy as an all-around cookbook by cooks what wanted ideas both for every day and for special occasions, and though the number of cookbooks in print has increased tremendously since then, it's still one of the standard cookbooks you can expect to find in Italian homes. Success is a great stimulus, and following the publication of Il Talismano Ada Boni brought out La Cucina Regionale Italiana, Italian Regional Cooking, which has been translated into English, Il Piccolo Talismano, a selection of recipes drawn mainly from Il Talismano, which has also been translated into English, and La Cucina Romana, an excellent book dedicated to the cooking of the Eternal City.

Here are a few recipes drawn from Il Talismano; given the season (March, and still very much winter), I've concentrated on things that will keep the cold at bay.

Gorgonzola in Crema
A delicate, creamy Gorgonzola dip that could also be a nice option for seasoning meats.

Insalate Romane
A variety of Roman salads, some cooked and some raw, that are especially refreshing in summer.

Minestra & Zuppa al Pomodoro
A collection of tomato soups.

Spaghetti con le Melanzane
Spaghetti with eggplant, a classic Sicilian dish

Maccheroncini con le Polpettine
Pasta with meatballs are uncommon in Italy, but when you find them they're good.

Tagliatelle con Acciughe e Tonno
Most tuna sauces also have tomato. But not this one.

Cannelloni & Manicotti:
Several recipes, including some by Ada Boni

Costolette Guarnite
Ada Boni's recipe for veal cutlets in a zesty tomato and bell pepper sauce.

Abbacchio in Spezzatino con Patate
Lamb stew with mashed potatoes, comfort food from Ada Boni.

Braciato Alla Bresciana
A tasty beef stew that will also yield a sauce for pasta or rice.

Arrosto al Latte
A rich, mushroomy veal potroast.

Spezzato Marengo
Marengo stew, a combination of veal and other ingredients that's as inspired as Napoleon's classic chicken.

Anitra Con Lenticchie
Stewed duck on a bed of lentils.

Practical Information
Il Talismano della Felicità
Ada Boni, 1928
Casa Editrice Colombo
ISBN 88-86359-33-0

A presto,
Kyle Phillips

Got more sites / recipes to suggest? Let me know.

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