The legendary Roman food writer, whose tomes on Italian cuisine became a household staple in the early 1900s, left a legacy that home cooks can still learn from today
In an era of food influencers, social media trends and fast-paced digital consumption, I often find myself flipping through old cookbooks with faded pages and no photos, chock-full of the wise advice of past food writers. One of my favorite cookbook authors, Ada Boni, provides timeless inspiration with her “Il Talismano della Felicità” (“The Talisman of Happiness”).
Born into a wealthy family in Rome in 1881, Ada Boni was one of the first Italian food writers. She was a food journalist, passionate restaurateur, entrepreneur and home cook whose writing and recipes have left a lasting legacy on the Italian food scene. Her first cookbook, Il Talismano, might be to Italian home cooks what The Joy of Cooking was to their American counterparts; it was a customary gift for the young and inexperienced bride on her wedding day, a good omen of happiness at the table and in marriage.
A pioneering food writer
Boni’s uncle, Adolfo Giaquinto, was a journalist, poet and celebrated chef, and he introduced her to the joy of good food. Meanwhile, her husband Enrico Boni became her perfect accomplice: he was a sculptor, painter and photographer who was also passionate about cooking and gastronomy – and a personal friend of French chef Auguste Escoffier.
In 1915, Boni and her husband founded Preziosa, a food magazine that could be considered the forerunner of modern blogs. On his pages, she shared recipes accompanied by personal insights into her daily life – her passions, poetry, advice on bon ton (good manners) and housekeeping. Thousands of young Roman women subscribed to him, seeking advice as they were novices in the kitchen. This prompted Boni to start a cooking school for aristocratic Roman women.
In 1925, trusting the affection of their subscribers, the couple launched the idea of a cookbook based on a crowdfunding project: if at least 500 readers committed to buying the cookbook, they would print it. Thousands of people signed enthusiastically, and in 1929, after years of hard work, Il Talismano della Felicità was published.
“Il Talismano della Felicità” was the bible of the perfect housewife. Ada Boni knew everything. It was a book for women who had enough money to hire a housekeeper but not enough to hire a cook. Boni showed her readers that cooking is not only the duty of a good mother and wife, but can also become a playful endeavor, a joy to be discovered and cultivated.
Originally “Il Talismano” had 882 recipes, but since then it has been constantly updated and adapted to more modern techniques, supermarkets, industrial ingredients and fridges and freezers – and surpassed 1000 recipes.
A timeless kitchen guard
Ada Boni was not part of my family cookbook collection; it was Pellegrino Artusi, the father of Italian cuisine and author of the seminal work “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (1891) who prescribed how each dish in our kitchen had to be prepared. When I first started collecting cookbooks, new and old, I looked online for a used copy of Il Talismano.
When I received it I was so surprised to find a book full of handwritten notes, with recipes underlined and marked ‘very good’, crammed with old advertisements clipped from magazines to use as bookmarks. I had just dug up another grandma’s cookbook. From that moment on, Boni became another tutelary deity in my kitchen.
why do i love her so much Ada Boni is a funny woman. She’s a lady from another era, yet her recipes range from traditional Italian dishes to more international fare, a nod to her curious approach to cooking. I recognize Jane Austen’s subtle irony in her intros; They have the same way of speaking to innkeepers and young women of marriageable age – light-hearted and funny, but always appropriate.
Il Talismano was translated into English by Matilde La Rosa in 1950 as The Talisman Italian Cook Book, but it is an abridged version with a selection of recipes deemed more appropriate for an American audience. Many of the translated titles are named using French techniques, as they were more familiar than the Italian ones. Boni’s late work “Italian Regional Cooking”, a valuable collection of regional Italian dishes, is also available in English.
I was very fortunate to find these two translated gems in a stack of cookbooks given away by my husband’s aunt. Roberta is American; She moved to Florence in her mid-20s, fell in love with Tommaso’s uncle Guido and decided to stay forever. When she was younger, she was so enthusiastic about cooking from scratch that she bought all kinds of cookbooks from the second-hand stands at the local flea market. I inherited her 1950 edition of The Talisman Italian Cook Book, a 1969 edition of Italian Regional Cooking, and her copy of Artusi’s Cookbook, which is my third.
For those who like frugal, practical, old-fashioned recipes, for those who don’t let a good scoop of butter put you off, and for those who want witty words and advice to transport them back in time, Boni’s book is a treasure trove of infallible recipes. I tried their carrots stuffed with tuna and breadcrumbs – a very unusual vegetable for stuffing these days, but something I’ve been making since that first try – several of their cookies, a couple of Roman recipes, a rice pudding cake and more, and it all came out fantastic.
Here I am sharing her recipe for Saltimbocca alla Romana from Italian Regional Cooking. It’s a dish I’ve been making for years, easy and ideal for a weeknight dinner.
RECIPE: Saltimbocca alla Romana (veal scaloppini with prosciutto and sage)