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Culinary Giants

Culinary Giant: Ada Boni

Wrote the must-have cookbook for generations of Italian women

By Bill Daley, Tribune Newspapers

May 15, 2013

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Ada Boni's cookbook "Il Talismano della Felicita" is considered to be the Italian "Joy of Cooking." It's easy to see why: Published in 1928, the book (which translates as "the talisman of happiness" in English) quickly became a must-have for generations of Italian women and went through multiple editions and revisions. It arrived in the United States in 1950 as "The Talisman Italian Cookbook" and was among the few authentic Italian cookbooks in English at the time. The book influenced and inspired home cooks and food professionals alike.

"Her recipes are genuine and reliable and traditional, and I like her books better than (Pellegrino) Artusi or 'The Silver Spoon,'" says Gillian Riley, the Italian food authority and editor of "The Oxford Companion to Italian Food," from London. "It seems to me she has a genuine, down-to-earth quality that's very accessible."

And popular. By the time Boni died at age 92 in 1973, The New York Times would note that "Talisman" and a later work titled "Italian Regional Cooking" were among the "best-known books on Italian cuisine."

Boni was born into a "comfortable, upper-middle-class Roman family" and began cooking for fun at age 10, according to the "Companion." She founded a food-focused magazine for women called Preziosa in 1915 and taught cooking classes in Rome.

"Il Talismano" contained 882 recipes when first published, but that number rose to more than 2,000 with subsequent editions. Despite what the "Companion" describes as adaptations to changing tastes and the inclusion of "fashionable or foreign recipes," it says Boni's book "remains a classic compendium of the cooking of an aspiring middle class, striving for aristocratic gentility."

Lidia Bastianich, the Italian-born restaurateur, cookbook author and cooking television star, uses "Il Talismano" often as a reference. Italy was newly united and moving into the modern world, she notes, and people were relocating to the cities but still wanted to cook the dishes they loved. Boni helped them do that.

"For the young brides, and I'm talking about the 1950s when I was growing up, the book was a special gift," recalls Bastianich. "Grandmothers and mothers didn't write recipes down, and, finally, brides had something to follow."

In the U.S., the "Talisman" was a much slimmer affair than its 866-page Italian counterpart. Half the recipes in the Italian edition were deemed non-Italian in origin and were deleted from the English edition. Some recipes were added by the translator, Matilde La Rosa, who found them "very popular with her American friends."

The popularity of "Talisman" doesn't mean there has not been grumbling over the format of the English language edition.

"It's an old-fashioned book with no head notes, no explanations, no translation of Italian terms, no identification of products," grumbles Nick Malgieri, the New York City-based cookbook author. Yet, he quickly acknowledges its impact in introducing authentic Italian cooking to hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Bastianich concedes cooking from Boni's book can be difficult for an American lacking the feel for the culture in which Boni lived and cooked.

"She assumes users have some basic knowledge around the kitchen," says Bastianich, who notes the Italian edition is sprinkled with "QB" — "quanto basta" — which means, roughly "as much as is enough." Italian home cooks would know that. And if they didn't, Bastianich says, they could always turn to their mothers, their grandmothers or Ada Boni, who represented the "new emerging woman" who could and did work.

"Ada was a feminist, if you will, but in a very nonthreatening way to the Italian male," Bastianich adds. "She said, 'Cook a home meal,' but at the same time there was a message, 'You can do other things, and I'll help you with the recipes.'"

Spaghetti all'amatriciana

Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Servings: 6

Note: In her cookbook, "Italian Regional Cooking," Ada Boni writes that the most famous pasta dish of her native Rome is spaghetti all'amatriciana, "the origin of which is said to be Amatrice, a little village in the Sabine country, on the border between Lazio and the Abruzzo." The sauce, she notes, is based on guanciale, cured pork jowl, "diced and mixed with tomatoes, peppers, onions and fat salt pork (purists omit tomatoes)." Lean bacon is substituted in the English translation of the cookbook. Some cooking sources suggest pancetta take the place of guanciale. The sauce makes just enough to coat the pasta; we've cut back a bit on the amount of spaghetti from Boni's recipe and doubled the tomatoes, in line with her version in "Talismano."

Ingredients:

2 1/2 tablespoons lard or oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

5 ounces lean bacon, thinly sliced

1/2 cup dry white wine, optional

2 pounds ripe or canned tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 pound spaghetti

3/4 cup grated pecorino, or mixed Parmesan and pecorino cheese

1. Heat the lard and saute the onion over a very low heat until soft. Add the bacon and fry it slowly for a few minutes. Moisten with white wine and continue cooking until it evaporates a little. Peel, chop and seed the tomatoes, then add them to the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and cook over a brisk heat for not more than 15 minutes.

2. Bring a large pan of salted water to a fast boil. Lower the spaghetti into the water, stir well and cook until just tender. Drain and dress the spaghetti immediately with the hot sauce, and sprinkle with the grated cheese.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 468 calories, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 22 mg cholesterol, 67 g carbohydrates, 19 g protein, 682 mg sodium, 5 g fiber.

wdaley@tribune.com