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Al Dente's Inferno

Al Dente's Inferno

by Stephanie Cole
Al Dente's Inferno

Al Dente's Inferno

by Stephanie Cole

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)

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Overview

An American chef will have to serve up more than good eats if she wants to establish a successful farm-to-table cooking school in Tuscany, in this charming first installment in a new cozy mystery series set in Italy. 
 
When Nell Valenti is offered a chance to move to Tuscany to help transform an aging villa into a farm-to-table cooking school, she eagerly accepts. After all, both her job and her love life in America have been feeling stale. Plus, she'll get the chance to work under the acclaimed Italian Chef Claudio Orlandini.
 
But Nell gets more than she bargained for when she arrives. With only a day to go until the launch dinner for the cooking school, the villa is in shambles, and Chef O is blissfully oblivious of the work that needs to be done before a group of local dignitaries arrive, along with a filmmaker sent to showcase and advertise the new school. The situation only worsens when Nell discovers that the filmmaker is an ex-boyfriend, and he’s found murdered later that night. Even worse, Chef O has disappeared, and accusations of murder could shut the school down for good.
 
As tensions reach a boiling point at the villa, Nell must throw her chef's hat into the ring, and investigate the murder herself. Because if she fails to solve the case, her career, or even her life, could be next on the chopping block.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593097793
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/25/2020
Series: A Tuscan Cooking School Mystery , #1
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 448,744
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Stephanie Cole is an active member of the mystery writing community. Writing as Shelley Costa, she was nominated for both an Edgar and an Agatha award, and she cofounded the Northeast Ohio chapter of Sisters in Crime. She teaches creative writing workshops and lectures on American literature in the greater Cleveland area. For fun she takes violin lessons, studies Art History—and eyes them both for murder plots.

Read an Excerpt

1

 

Twenty minutes after the train deposited me on a warm, deserted platform in Camucia-Cortona, Italy, I was still waiting for my ride. The small station building was made out of brick that looked like it had been swiped from a time when Elvis was still alive and, better yet, sexy. Overhead a plexiglass awning was cloudy with age, and the clock mounted high on the brick wall, which was missing its minute hand, said it was noon. Maybe the guidebooks were right: In beautiful Tuscany, time stops.

 

Here in this corner of Italy, where bestsellers would lead you to believe that the sun always shone on colorful lizards and clever you, why did I feel like I was back in Weehawken, New Jersey, where I'd lived for a year after college just to get away from my parents for a while? Seven years later, not much had changed. I was still living, on and off, in Weehawken. And I was still trying to get away from my parents.

 

Maybe, I thought as my eyes swept this place, I had finally managed it.

 

For one quick moment I caught sight of a slim man dressed in jeans, wraparound sunglasses, and a black T-shirt leaning against a boxy old gray Fiat. With his arms crossed, he seemed to be looking my way, but when he didn't make a move, I figured he wasn't my ride. Still, I was the only one at the station, and it was several hours until the next train. Suddenly nervous, I patted the theft-proof shoulder bag I had bought at a paranoid traveler shop back home.

 

With a quick zip, I groped my way through my passport, wallet, phone, lipstick, travel-sized mouthwash, earbuds, and cheesy book for the flight-had I actually forgotten to pack a photocopy of my passport in my suitcase? Squatting, I fumbled with the suitcase, flung it open, and jammed my hand inside my chef's toque, my fingers ruffling the photocopied papers.

This was good news. Maybe, after all, I had the packing skills of a true adult.

 

When I locked my suitcase back up, and pulled it-and my Coach Metropolitan Briefcase that had cost me more than a month's rent-closer to my leg in some kind of crazy safety move, I realized the slim man in jeans and wraparounds was gone. So was the boxy old Fiat. Maybe he'd been waiting for a traveler who had never arrived. I stretched and indulged myself in the thrill of the days and weeks ahead. I was meeting my culinary hero, Chef Claudio Orlandini-no, more than that, I was going to work for him. That day in mid-September, when I arrived to take up my new job, was momentous.

 

So what if the sky in Tuscany was a white gloom and even the soft rain seemed to question its reason for being? So what if almost as far as I could see there were no people, no stray dogs, no tourist information kiosks? For that matter, it seemed to me, as I whirled to check out the landscape and tripped over my own suitcase, this Camucia-Cortona train station had been set down in a field erupting with weeds, a field too small to pave, too big to maintain.

 

Who knew an hour and a half southeast of Florence, by train, could be so totally . . . anywhere?

Just then a harsh, steady sputtering caught my ear and I watched what looked like a souped-up Vespa approach the station. When it swung around and came to a stop on the edge of the grassy lot, I could see it wasn't much bigger than a Smart car, but had a flatbed attached. With one wheel in the front and two in the back, this little vehicle looked like a motorized tricycle. It had round headlamps that give it a cheerful, can-do look, and it gleamed at me in baby blue soft lines.

The man who stepped out of this contraption lost no time striding across the field toward me, scowling. Considering he was wearing tan work pants and a dazzling white shirt open at the collar, he looked official, like he had every intention of finding out just what I had done with all the dogs in Cortona.

"Ornella Valenti?" he hollered.

"Sì, sì," I hollered back. Feeling braver, I launched into one of my Italian for Idiots handy phrases. "Mi chiamo Nell Valenti." I gave myself a B+ for inflection. In Italian, every phrase needs to sound as though you're announcing the week's Powerball winner.

The man stopped just short of the platform and swept a look over me-not so brief as to be insulting, but not so leisurely as to be interesting. His black hair was cut short, and his long cheeks could use a shave, getting on toward five o'clock. If you were back in high school, his dark eyes were the sort where you could debate forever whether they were hazel or brown. But I wasn't back in high school. They were hazel.

Looking past me at the deserted platform, he tipped his head this way and that as though he was deciding against his better judgment to give me a try. Sighing soundlessly, he thrust out a hand. "Pierfranco Orlandini," he said with a little lift of his chin.

I shook his hand and was about to launch into some well-rehearsed Italian small talk about how much the red skirt costs when he added in excellent English, "Call me Pete." At my look of surprise, he smiled. "Four years at Cornell."

"Ah," I said winningly. Sometimes my English is second only to my Italian.

"Plus another four knocking around Chicago and L.A." He added: "Chef is my pop."

With that, the man scowled at a crumpled candy wrapper on the train tracks, and I shot a pensive look at a cloud that looked very much like a lopsided vase I had made in pottery class two years ago. All of a sudden Pete Orlandini swiped my suitcase and took off.

 

For one bad moment, I thought he was stealing it. "Aspetti!" I cried, springing after him through the tall grass, remembering all the Tuscan vipers, adders, and asps one travel writer cheerily noted "probably won't kill you." Call Me Pete reached the baby blue vehicle just ahead of me and, with great attention, was securing my suitcase among the crates in the flatbed. "I'm sorry I was late fetching you."

"Fetching me?"

"Three years in London." He tugged at the bungee cords slung across my suitcase. "Our local vintner"-he shot me a quick look-"is a talker." He said it affectionately.

I smiled. "And after London?"

He smiled back. "Three years in New York."

"More knocking around?"

"Culinary school, restaurant jobs. You know the life."

Nodding, I turned slowly in the light rain, catching my breath, suddenly smelling the wild flowers I had trampled. It was the sharp scent of what I think of as edible pine tar-my good kitchen friend rosemary, with its silvery spears and pale blue violet flowers. There was hardly anything I got the notion to cook that wasn't improved by rosemary.

I pinched a sprig, nibbling it lightly between my front teeth, and felt like the Connecticut I had left behind wasn't really four thousand miles away. In both places, the sound of raindrops pecking the tall grass settled my heart. This place wasn't home, but if I closed my eyes I could be back in Gristmill Falls, hidden in the gentle Berkshires, where, back in the spring, I had turned a commercial kitchen into a farm-to-table cooking school at the Prajna Retreat Center and fallen into an ill-fated six-month relationship.

Pete Orlandini pulled a rustling tarp over my suitcase and tucked it in like a father putting a child to bed. "Grazie," I said, taking in his tan work pants that looked soft from use. His cuffs were tucked loosely into a battered old pair of muck boots, the kind I used to wear back in Connecticut while I developed the cooking school that had somehow gotten the Orlandinis' attention.

As he leaned toward me, his arm swept over the baby blue truck. "As you would say"-he shot me a tight-lipped smile-"andiamo."

I climbed into the passenger's side of the little two-seater and noted, when Pete slid in, that there was very little real estate between the passenger's side and the driver's side. Forget bucket seats. Forget seat belts. Jammed against each other as we were, if he had a sudden heart attack, I could drive us to safety without climbing over him. Baby Blue blurted, lurched, sprang, and off we went, one of my hands gripping what passed for a dashboard, the other gripping his shoulder. "You run the villa on this"-I couldn't find an accurate word-"tricycle?"

Pete gave me a wounded look. "This is the Ape." He pronounced it Ah-pay. For a brief moment, his hands left the steering wheel to make one of those large, sweeping Italian gestures that leave no room for discussion. My heart stopped. Then his eyes got dreamy. "In many ways," he murmured, his hands stroking the steering wheel again, "the Ape is the Villa Orlandini." This little souped-up Vespa? The villa? What about the world-renowned chef who made a pomodoro sauce so exquisite you never had to make dinner reservations in Rome?

Just shy of joining the traffic, we hit a pothole too fast, and I was flung across Pete in a manner I was proud to say had never entered my dating life. Not in cars, at any rate. "Scusi," I choked at him, trying to push myself off the man. "Eccomi." I gurgled, regaining my half of the seat and spreading my hands. "Behold me," I thought I had said, with the subtext going something along the lines of Look at yourself, Nell, you silly jackass, not caring whether Pete asked me what in the name of his pop's holy vitello all'Orlandini I was talking about.

"Scusi," he flung over his shoulder at me-his head out the window like a big, friendly dog sniffing the air on the way to the Grand Canyon-then swerved to get us into traffic. There was some honking of horns, which Pete seemed to interpret as Cool car, man! Sure enough, as an old red Alfa Romeo passed us, the driver kissed all five of his fingers grouped like a rosebud, then pointed at the Ape that was apparently the heart of the operations at Villa Orlandini. Pete and the other guy shared a moment of automotive joy, and then the Alfa Romeo sleeked ahead.

He settled back into our seat, savoring. I stared straight ahead, waiting for him to light up. Then: "For as long as you're here, Nell Valenti"-he slipped me a veiled look-"I'll share her with you." With true horror, I realized he meant the Ape. At that moment, as the roadway opened up and we drove into the Tuscan hillside, I had two unsettling thoughts. For one, the beltless little Ape as my sole means of transportation. For the other, what exactly Pete Orlandini had meant when he had said For as long as you're here.

It was the light.

And that was something I understood in my first hour in Cortona. As Pete drove in silence, I studied the landscape as the little Ape rose in my estimation. It took the swerves without side-sliding, although I had a few bad moments as I heard crates of local wine jostling in the back, and it took the hills without a sputter.

We passed olive groves and vineyards, then a plain white sign with cortona lettered in no-nonsense black, and slowed as we approached a grand archway in a high stone wall lavishly covered with vines. Cortona was a walled city from a time when stonework was your first line of defense against invaders. There was nothing angular about this one, and nothing predictable about the layout of the streets in this small Tuscan hillside city. Walls can wend, and streets can lead us astray. Like strangers. Like friends. And, as I'd later discover, like murder.

 

In the late-afternoon sunlight, I could tell the city wall sank and rose and turned in harmony with the natural landscape. When Pete mentioned it had been built in 1259, I wondered if it had done its job against invaders. Was I, in fact, just one more invader? Hired to take Chef Orlandini's small operation at his villa into a major, premier cooking school? For as long as you're here. What would it take? Six months, tops? Order another commercial stove or two, order another Sub-Zero refrigerator-or expand the walk-in freezer-hang more pots and pans, dedicate a couple more rooms in the way of accommodations, design a new website . . .

In my talks with the Orlandinis' lawyer in Florence, I learned that I'd be earning double what I had made from the Prajna job in Connecticut, "all" I needed to do was beef up ("biff opp") what was already in place, design a curriculum with American gastrotourists in mind, and "get the word out"-he sounded so vague on that score that I realized he had to be over fifty and had no expertise in strategic communications, the job formerly known as marketing. Twice he mentioned how I was the personal pick of Chef Claudio Orlandini to undertake this project. He would have nothing less than Nell Valenti. So I had some concerns about my culinary hero's mental health.

I gazed at the sight of sunlit Cortona, picking out the dome of the basilica, church spires, stone buildings in sand and ocher colors, slate roofs-all clustered in the smaller hills that rose higher and higher to the four-hundred-year-old fortress at the very top. We made our gentle way up winding streets through the heart of Cortona.

 

It was then as Pete shifted into second that I understood the Tuscan light. It was original light, when everything quietly shone. Not in a harsh brightness, but in a simple clarity. Almost as if each tree and creature and rock was the source of light itself. Before fire, smog, imperfect lanterns, and evil. And it truly took my breath away.

"It's the light," I said softly, turning to Pete Orlandini. He widened his eyes and waited. My shoulders hunched. "It's like the light before there were any shadows."

It was just the angle, I was sure, but his cheek looked like the light. And I could swear his hands on the steering wheel of the Ape were a little bit ocher. "Is that what you think?" he said softly. My eyes studied blue shutters at a window in the distance. I gave a tiny nod. At that, he sighed. "It's early days," was all he said.

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