Cooking the Books: Death of an Italian Chef by Lee Hollis
One of my favorite things with really good long-running cozy series, culinary or otherwise, is seeing how the characters continue to develop and grow with each book. Over the course of 14 novels and the handful of novellas that make up the Hayley Powell Food and Cocktails Mystery series, I’ve been so pleased to see Hayley and her best friends change and mature in all the best ways.
Another big change is coming for Hayley in this latest book, which revolves around the untimely demise of fresh New York City transplant Chef Romeo Russo. Chef Romeo’s new Italian eatery is doing fantastic business since opening in Bar Harbor, Maine. Prior to his death, an ongoing conversation between him and Hayley about pasta leads to an offer for her to join his team and cook with him at the restaurant. Hayley loves her job as food columnist for the Island Times but is admittedly finding her main duties as the newspaper’s office manager increasingly stale. For all that, she’s understandably hesitant about making a midlife career change.
All thoughts of work are driven out of her head, however, when her brother Randy is admitted to the hospital with acute pancreatitis complicating what should be routine gallbladder surgery. To her surprise, she runs into Chef Romeo again when a heart attack lands him in the same hospital room as Randy. Chef Romeo wants Hayley to take over the restaurant while he’s incapacitated but suffers a fatal attack before she can make up her mind. Only Randy swears that the attack was less natural than the result of a large, masked figure injecting something into Chef Romeo’s IV.
Since Randy was pretty heavily sedated at the time he saw the figure, no one except Hayley takes him seriously. To complicate things, Randy’s husband, Bar Harbor Police Chief Sergio Alvarez, is on vacation in his native Brazil, and his handpicked replacement seems to find Hayley’s allegations amusing at the best of times and downright annoying at others. With more and more dangerous situations befalling her as she looks into Chef Romeo’s death, will Hayley be able to get to the bottom of things while avoiding a similar fate to her departed friend’s?
I did not expect this mystery to go the way it did and was pleasantly shocked by the big reveal. I also really enjoyed the peek into the restaurant business. The lovely depictions of some of the best and funniest parts of the industry brought back fond memories of my own eight-year stint, though the realistically not-so-great parts reminded me of why I’ll never go back. Death of an Italian Chef has definitely been one of my favorite installments of this series to date. Bonus points for casually mentioning the pandemic without breaking the cozy atmosphere.
This novel had eight Italian food and seven (more or less, depending on how you feel about Sal’s signature) cocktail recipes included, and I absolutely had to try this one:
Hayley’s Spaghetti Carbonara
1 pound of thin spaghetti
8 ounces pancetta or bacon chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
1 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
Fresh ground black pepper
Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Whisk the eggs, Parmesan, and black pepper in a bowl and set aside.
In a large pan, cook your pancetta over medium heat until crisp, then remove from pan and add your minced garlic and red pepper flakes, if using. Cook for one minute. Add back pancetta.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in salted water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and add it to the pan with the pancetta and garlic using your tongs to combine. Remove pasta from heat and add the egg mixture. Mix well with tongs, adding your pasta water as needed.
Plate and add extra Parmesan if you like, then dive in and be prepared to pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
I actually got to make this over at my lovely assistant Karin’s house, as we’re both vaccinated and have been following CDC guidelines so have been indulging in the occasional visit. I’ve never made a carbonara before—it’s always seemed so daunting!—but with beef bacon and this fairly simple recipe in hand, I felt quietly confident, especially since my background is in Italian cooking. Despite this, I absolutely feared scrambling the eggs while making the sauce but needn’t have worried. This recipe is foolproof and makes for an insanely delicious dish, especially with my beef bacon substitution providing a really rich, decadent base.
Next week, we go nearly cross-country to try a wonderful dessert while investigating a witchy death. Do join me!