Al Dente’s Inferno
Tuscan Cooking School Mystery, Book #1
By Stephanie Cole
Author Website: stephaniecolebooks(.)com
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Jeanie
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. (Goodreads)
What do a dead cow, a murdered filmmaker, and a missing, bocce-playing chef have to do with each other? Al Dente’s Inferno is a fun, witty first in a new series set in the lush beauty of Tuscany. The characters are likable, quirky, and defined as needed. The mystery is confounding; I had a hard time choosing a suspect.
Chef Nell Valenti’s re-created life as a cooking school start-up designer is going well; she has been offered a position to help set up a farm-to-table cooking school for her hero, Chef Claudio Orlandini, an acclaimed Italian chef. She successfully directed a start-up farm-to-table cooking school in the Berkshires at the Prajna Retreat Center and had an unsuccessful relationship with Bu, who she thought was someone seeking Buddhist enlightenment.
The first thing she sees of the future cooking school is the Villa’s vehicle, an older three-wheeled enclosed Vespa with a flatbed. Chef’s son, Pete, arrived in it to pick her up at the train station. Hopefully Pete, who has lived in various places around the world and now cares for the olive grove on the vast 50-acre property, better represents the Villa than the Vespa. Or the neighbor’s dead cow in Pete’s olive grove amidst a small area of trees that look blighted.
Nell’s tour of Villa Orlandini is lacking. It is a 16th century convent that includes an old cloister, a crumbling fountain, a mossy common area reeking of mildew, and a dormitory with an invading porcupine that hasn’t been lived in for decades. The former chapel is beautiful with its original stained-glass windows and is now used as an elegant dining room. At dinner Nell learns that the chef and his sous-chef, Annamaria, are preparing dinner the following evening for three dignitaries to celebrate the beginning of work on the cooking school. Joining them is a Netflix documentary filmmaker and his assistant to add the Villa to a documentary on European school start-ups. The common area, where they wish to entertain, is a complete disaster. Oh, and one other little glitch. The renowned filmmaker is none other than Bu, the guy Nell had the unfortunate fling with at her last job.
The next day is a flurry of Pete and others calling in favors – rental furniture for the common area, removal of the porcupine, removed moss from the wall and many other details. Annamaria, who with Pete ensures that anything worthwhile at the villa happens, does not speak English, and Nell speaks little Italian. Watching them converse in charades is hysterical, especially with many misinterpretations!
Bu greeted Nell enthusiastically. He and his assistant, Ember, film throughout the villa. In the kitchen during meal prep, Bu trash-talks to everyone in an insulting manner as he films them, especially Annamaria’s sisters who are nuns, there to help wherever needed. Nell kicks Bu, knocking him down, not wanting her new working family insulted. Pete tells Bu that if he harasses any of the guests or the Villa family, he would personally take care of Bu.
When the dignitaries – Ernesto, international food critic, the Contessa, a wealthy Roman socialite, and Benedetto, the local chamber of commerce director arrive, Nell hears Bu have less than cordial private greetings with each as if they know each other. The dinner starts well, then Nell notices partway through that Chef has disappeared. After dinner is complete and the guests are gone, Nell goes outdoors, and finds Bu lying on the ground. He isn’t drunk as she suspected – he is dead, clearly murdered, and nobody has found Chef yet.
We learn enough about Nell’s background to like her and enjoy her dry humor. It takes courage and determination to travel over 4,000 miles and live in a country with a different language and customs! On the plus side, she will work for her hero and expand her start-up experience. Pete is very personable and does his best to interpret for her with everyone else. We learn a bit of Annamaria and Chef’s backgrounds, but little of anyone else.
Nell and Pete are determined to find the killer and get Chef – then Nell – off the suspect list. They clearly have minimal experience even reading mysteries, as their initial attempts to solve the murder and disappearance of Chef are almost painful at times. They learn the cause of death of the cow in the olive grove. The reader is treated to beautiful descriptives of the countryside and laugh-out-loud humor.
Plot twists slowly reveal suspects and motives, but it seems a very slow process. I was unsuccessful at selecting the real bad guy until seconds before she was identified, showing me how well-plotted the mystery is. For now, cooking, and even preparing the school, are not front and center; the mystery, the characters, and even the truffle dog are the heart of it. This first in a new series may have a slow start but overall is a solid start. I highly recommend it!