What The Joy of Cooking Is to Americans, The Talisman of Happiness Is to Italians

May  3, 2016

Roman cookbook author and magazine editor Ada Boni may not be a household name outside of Italy, but she did bring to American kitchens a manual of Italian cooking in 1950 that many still cite as their favorite Italian cookbook.

Ada Boni's "The Talisman Italian Cook Book." Photo by Emiko Davies

In 1929, the year the original The Talisman Italian Cook Book (known as Il Talismano della Felicità in Italian) was published, it was considered the book for the “modern woman," the book to give to all brides for their wedding.

In fact, it kept this status well throughout the twentieth century, thanks to the fact that this well-thumbed classic (much like Artusi's cookbook) sat on kitchen shelves and was passed down from grandmother or mother to daughter for generations. It's a cookbook that is still constantly printed, reprinted, and bought. Some call it the Italian version of what the Joy of Cooking is to Americans! She is to Italians what Delia Smith is to British home cooks.

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It was translated into English by Matilde La Rosa, and a shortened version (the Italian version has over a thousand pages) was published for American and British kitchens in 1950. The introduction is by Italian-American linguist Mario Pei, who muses on the diversity of regional Italian cuisine and how Italians approach food. It alone, with Pei's wonderful quotes (“Variety is the spice of life. Italy has infinite variety and infinite spice.”), is reason enough to seek out this edition.

More: Read about some more of our favorite Italian food writers.

La Rosa and Pei chose the recipes that were to appear in the abridged English version based on what they found to be “most adaptable” to American 1950s households. They also added some Italian-American recipes deemed indispensable in an Italian cookbook and eliminated any of the recipes that were not strictly of Italian origins—recipes that perhaps served Ada Boni’s original idea as a collection of recipes for the “modern” Italian woman.

It is still a 1950s cookbook, and this is very clear. Many recipe titles are named with French techniques—“au gratin” or “fricassee”—as French cuisine reigned and the vocabulary was more familiar in the kitchen than their Italian counterparts were. Pork heart soup and fried eels may not be dishes that Americans jump at the chance to cook now, but her ossobuco (one of the best), homemade amaretti, and maritozzi (Roman cream buns) recipes are classics (and some of my personal favorites). Some Italian ingredients and substitutions that weren't easily accessible in the 50s (pancetta is often replaced with bacon, for example) may make it a little outdated and feel less “authentic,” but it is a fantastic collection of recipes that I like to use for ideas or as a cross-reference with other cookbooks, particularly for Roman dishes (her specialty).

It's written in a no-nonsense way, with straightforward descriptions and no headnotes and many recipes only taking up a few lines each. Ada Boni doesn't hold your hand through every single step of the recipe, but often gives you an idea of how you can make it, particularly in simple preparations for desserts, sides, or antipasti: Her “Fried Italian Yellow Squash” reads only, “Roll squash in flour, dip into salted egg and fry in hot oil until light brown in color on both sides. Serves 4.”

Her recipe for mozzarella in carrozza (the most delectable, deep-fried mozzarella sandwiches) is exactly three-and-a-half lines long. I like this; we have become so used to a description of every single drop and measurement telling us what to do.

Her Calabrian torta di noci (walnut cake) is made of essentially three ingredients: walnuts, eggs and sugar. And although it's simplicity can actually be what makes it tricky (halve it and fill it with lemon buttercream, Ada suggests), it is still one of the best cakes I have ever made. And her castagnole or ricotta fritters, deep fried and rolled in sugar, are the lightest, fluffiest ones around.

Her chocolate “Bilbolbul” cake (which unfortunately wasn't translated into English, probably because it's not a traditional recipe, per se) is the ultimate crowd-pleaser, easy enough to whip up with pantry staples (rather along the lines of Margaret Fox's Amazon Chocolate Cake); it's ingredients are flour, sugar, milk, cocoa powder, and baking powder. That's right, no eggs or butter, though it's hard to believe when you taste it (and you can replace the milk with pretty much any liquid—coffee, coconut milk, even water).

What are some of your favorite Italian cookbooks?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • 702551
  • Jordan1324
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


702551 May 3, 2016
While I have repeatedly pointed out the significance of "Il talismano" as the most important overall 20th century cookbook on Italian cuisine, the Food52 editorial staff seems to be comfortable rather blithely ignoring this.

Personally, I think there's a better cookbook: "Le ricette regionali italiane" by Anna Gossetti della Salda. The main issue with this cookbook is that it has not been translated into English.

Gossetti della Salda's brilliance was grouping recipes by region, from north to south (like a culinary roadtrip) and including headnotes and variants that call out modifications for modernity, differences by town or even neighboring families in the same town. The recipes are highly traditional, some matching dishes published in the mid-19th century.

The post WWII Silver Spoon "Il cucchiaio argento" seems to be Food52's favorite Italian cookbook despite the fact that it was written by a faceless editorial board (of a design magazine) about thirty years after "Il talismano."


Anyhow, I own a copy of the 1950's Americanized translated "Talisman Italian Cookbook" and I'm not convinced that this version is worth paying more than a couple of dollars to read. The cookbook itself is brain damaged by the heavy recipe excision.
Jordan1324 May 3, 2016
I have the copy of the American version that my mother received from her in-laws as a newlywed (non-Italian). The Biscotti all' anaci were, and are, a family favorite. On my most recent visit to Italy, I splurged for a commemorative edition of the big Italian version. It almost required its own luggage.