“More recipe books? Because everybody likes good food,” is the first line of Lisa Biondi’s Antipasti, one of a series of six books published by Novara in October 1969. The introduction goes on to outline the book’s objective: classic recipes, simplified and with expert advice and unique touches to make them even more original. And the expert? Biondi herself, a much-loved household name in Italy, synonymous with competence, experience and accessibility.
I first met Lisa in one of Rome’s secondhand mercatini, in the form of three of those six books: Antipasti e Salse (starters and sauces), Uova e Pesci (eggs and fish) and Primi Piatti (pasta, rice and polenta). High on the smell of yellowing books and my Antiques Roadshow fantasies, I was caught by the cover of Antipasti in particular. On it is a party of stuffed eggs, some upright with a star-shaped opening at the top so that tuna mayonnaise could be piped in, others boat-style and topped with a peeled prawn with olive-sliver-legs or with radish slices arranged like flowers. As a backdrop to the eggs are cut-glass bowls filled with olives, radishes and mini pickled onions. In short, my ideal antipasti party.
Behind me, Vincenzo was looking at an Italian horror comic called Dylan Dog. “Lisa Biondi, eh? She was everywhere in the 60s and 70s,” he said, before returning to his nightmare investigator who loathes mobile phones, always wears a red shirt, black jacket and blue jeans and whose doorbell screams. I returned to Biondi and her kaleidoscope of technicolour step-by-step. And, on page 20, an actual caleidoscopio, of stuzzichini, or what my grandma might have referred to as nibbles: an Italian version of the cheese-and-pineapple hedgehog featuring a cauliflower impaled with toothpicks supporting cheese-salami-pickle-olive piles, a pie of canapes, 15 tempting sauces and five sorts of rice salad. Lisa Biondi, times three, came home with us.
And she turned out to be useful – in terms of inspiration, at least – for rice salad mostly, which makes me feel connected with my Sicilian mother-in-law and is as much a part of our summer as ice lollies, cold coffee and mosquito bites. I make various versions, and this one is a mix of Biondi’s insalata di riso di buongustaio and riso freddo saporito, or “cold, tasty rice”. Of course, if you don’t want to roast the tomatoes, use raw.
Over time, several visitors to the house have picked up one of those three books from the leaning piles in the corner of the kitchen and leafed through, remembering Biondi, how prolific she was, a regular on the radio and in magazines, and how she endorsed stock cubes, mayonnaise and olive oil. A friend recalled that, as a child, he was in love with her. The writer Stefania Barzini puts it best, describing how illustrations of “a beautiful blonde, with invariably backcombed hair and a vague resemblance to Grace Kelly, smiled invitingly from the covers of her books; how there was an idea that, if Lisa was advising, nothing bad could happen to us”.
Nor, as it turns out, to her. Because, according to Barzini and much to our friend’s dismay, Biondi was the entirely fictional creation of a group of experts paid by the margarine magnate Van Den Bergh. She was a kaleidoscope of fibs, a salad of lies! Someone ask Dylan Dog to investigate who was actually on the radio.
Insalata di riso – rice salad (again)
Prep 10 min
Cook 35 min
25 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 artichoke hearts in olive oil
50g black olives, pitted
250g long-grain rice
200g cooked green beans, chopped into short lengths
1 small tin tuna (optional)
A few anchovy fillets (optional)
1 dash red-wine vinegar (optional)
Set the oven to 190C (170C fan)/375F/gas 5. Put the tomato halves in a bowl, pour over some olive oil and sprinkle with salt, then toss and arrange cut side up on a well oiled oven tray. Bake for 30 minutes, or until slightly wrinkled and sweet, then remove and leave to cool.
Dice the artichokes and, if you wish, chop the olives in half. Bring a large pan of water to a boil and season with salt. Add the rice, cook for 10 minutes, then drain and leave to cool for 10 minutes.
Put all the ingredients in a large bowl, mix to combine, then add extra-virgin olive oil and salt to taste. Add a dash of red-wine vinegar, if you wish, stir and serve.