Crime of the Ancient Marinara
Tuscan Cooking School Mystery, Book #2
By Stephanie Cole
Author website: Stephaniecolebooks(.)com
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Jeanie
American chef Nell Valenti’s high hopes for a successful Tuscan farm-to-table cooking school are in danger of withering on the vine in this delectable cozy mystery.
Nell Valenti is settling into her role of transforming the Villa Orlandini into a superb farm-to-table cooking school, and the time has finally come for a full taste test run. But when Chef Orlandini prepares to reveal his top secret marinara recipe for the first time to a group of American gastro-tourists, Nell realizes she might have bitten off more than she can chew.
Nell begins to suspect that one of the tourists is actually a private detective sent to spy on her by her overprotective father, and the fussy foodies are noisy and disrespectful from the very start of the Marinara Mysteriosa workshop. Even worse, when one visitor appears to be poisoned by the famous marinara recipe, Nell will have to work fast to uncover a killer and keep a lid on bad press before her fresh start is spoiled for good.
I enjoyed this visit to Villa Orlandini, the newest Tuscan gastro-tour destination, even more than the first! It was a pleasure to get to know the Orlandini and Bari families better, as well as Nell, who came from the United States to design their new cooking school. The setting of the gorgeous countryside of Tuscany made it very appealing to this armchair sleuth. The humor, great characters, and mystery helps make this a fabulous vacation from daily cares and keeps the pages flying.
Villa Orlandini is a former 500-year-old convent that has been owned by famous Chef Claudio Orlandini for many years. The septuagenarian developed and introduced his secret recipe for his world-renown prima marinara sauce decades ago. This first class will have five students, all from America, for a four-day intensive called Marinara Mysteriosa. The real tease is if he will really reveal the secret ingredient to the world since no other chef has been able to guess it or duplicate the flavor. There is a strong attraction between Nell and Pete, Chef’s son and owner of Second Wind Olive Grove.
Five Americans arrive, eager to learn all about making marinara sauce. The teaser of learning the secret recipe for Chef’s proprietary marinara sauce has appeal. There is one married couple, Bob and Glynis; Bob is not happy to be there. Jenna is a coffee barista who wants much more for her life. Zoe is an outdoor educator, and George is a server at an upscale bistro in Brooklyn. The questionnaires do not indicate that any have cooking experience.
Annamaria has been Chef’s sous chef for over forty years and has never gotten over the affair they had as many years ago. It is quite the shock, then, when Chef is taken in by Zoe’s charm and he makes her his sous chef for one of the lessons. Annamaria’s sisters are sisters at the convent in nearby Cortona and are on loan to help with their needs as they begin their first intensive.
The first day went reasonably well, including Annamaria taking them out to harvest mushrooms and learn to identify the difference between safe and poisonous. Annamaria told Nell afterwards that one person in the group did not return the knife used for harvesting. George appears interested in Nell, resulting in Pete being jealous. When teaching the four marinara sauces later that day, Chef Claudio claims one is his secret recipe, revealed on the first rather than the last full day. Nell overhears George and Zoe talking about something being missing; she wonders if they are discussing the sauce.
The tour van hired to transport the students was taking the group into town to enjoy live music in the piazza. Bob complained that there was battery acid on his pasta that was hurting his tummy and stayed behind. Jenna, the youngest student, could not be found, and Nell wanted to find out where the missing knife could be, so Nell stayed at the Villa, also.
The next morning, Nell learns that Bob was taken to the hospital during the night, very sick. Later that day, he died, and the labs done showed he died from the poisonous mushroom that Annamaria had shown the class the day before. It had probably been in one of the marinara sauces he ingested for dinner. After a day of questioning everyone, the police found evidence in the kitchen pointing to Annamaria. Convinced that she is innocent, Nell wants to find who killed Bob and get Annamaria out of jail.
It was fun getting to know the characters better! Nell and Annamaria are my favorites, even as Anamaria’s sisters seem like a fun family with their affinity for playing and singing to Billy Joel music. Nell and Pete make a good couple, until stress and jealousy sends Pete in another direction. The visiting students are defined well enough to make solving the murder hard.
Second in this fun new series, I would suggest reading Al Dente’s Inferno before this to get a better flavor of the characters and background. Delicious plot twists took this reader by surprise more than once, and totally changed the face of the mystery and possible suspects. I did not realize who the real bad guy might be until a page or two before Nell’s light bulb moment. She did a fabulous job of revealing the killer, and the end was almost completely satisfying. I highly recommend it!