In Bed with Her Italian Boss by Kate Hardy, a Harlequin Presents that seems to have started life as a Mills & Boon called Breakfast at Giovanni’s, wasn’t what I would have expected given that title. That title conjures visions of a dubiously-appropriate workplace romance with a hot-blooded man. This book is not that. Not at all. Rather, it’s a story of two people trying to find their way when their careers take unexpected turns, with a side order of fond family interactions.
Francesca has been a customer at Giovanni’s coffeehouse for a while before she loses her job due to downsizing after a merger. And while Giovanni, the owner of the coffeehouse, has noticed her, she hasn’t ever really noticed him. So when he brings her a consoling treat and they get to talking, she doesn’t realize right away that he’s the owner. But they talk about her previous job and her skills and he offers her an office management position at his small, but growing chain. And if it just so happens that they’ve got a little bit of chemistry, well, that’s okay because they’re not going to act on it.
Of course, they do act on it. But not until after Francesca has been persuaded to be Giovanni’s fake girlfriend in addition to being his office manager, a set up that should have sent me running for the hills, but worked because pretty much everything else in this book is so spectacularly plausible and normal. The characters, the setting, the business details, and the coworker and family relationships all formed a steady foundation for this otherwise precarious plot. Both characters have emotional limitations that keep them apart even while circumstance keeps pushing them together. And at every step, their internal conflicts seemed genuine.
Giovanni is a perfect example of where romance’s alpha and beta hero distinctions break down. Here’s a hero who is good at his job, loves his family, plays classical guitar and feels all the feels right from the beginning of the novel. He rides in on his white horse (er, cargo van), gives the heroine a shot at a new career and helps out when her apartment gets flooded. And get this: he does it without being dictatorial or condescending. He just acts like a real friend would. Um, a tall, olive-skinned, dreamboat of a real friend, but who doesn’t have those? (Okay, none of us have those, but that’s part of why romance is fun.)
And Francesca is equally grounded and sensible. She is sad when she’s is downsized. She gets angry and frustrated with Giovanni when he’s being obtuse. She takes time to make decisions, handles her work challenges like a professional and doesn’t go to pieces except right at the end when a lack of communication puts the breaks on the romance. However, because the entire story is about two people learning to work together, like each other, trust each other and eventually love each other, that breakdown in understanding didn’t feel forced like it sometimes can in romance. There are no distractions in the form of lecherous villains or evil competitors. There’s no murder plot, dying family member or other dramatic, trauma-inducing situation to keep the plot moving.
In Bed With Her Italian Boss is just a couple of people fumbling their way through life and landing safely in each other’s laps. And how nice is that?
Today’s recipe makes me happy. So happy that I’ve been waiting about 10 months for the right book to share it.
Only about a quarter of my family has any real family recipes. My grandmother on my mother’s side wasn’t much of a cook. Everyone got fed, but she was very much an upper middle-class 1960s housewife with said’s attendant culinary expectations. Think more Jello salad than Julia Child. Don’t get me wrong, it has its charms, but in general, that’s not how I cook.
My father’s side is a different story. They’re Sicilian, nearly straight off the boat. So this is very much not a Northern Italian or Italian-American recipe. There is no ground beef or sausage or any meat at all. Probably because my great-grandmother was one of those people who, when you showed up, would ask if you were hungry. And no matter the answer, you’d better have been prepared to eat at least a three-course meal consisting of salad, pasta and main course. Yes, there was a pasta course and a main course. Both.
Are you getting a sense of why I now attempt to feed strangers via the internet?
There are some aspects of this recipe that are downright weird. Why add dried Italian seasoning and dried oregano when there is already fresh basil and fresh oregano and basil pesto? Why whole tomatoes and tomato sauce? What’s up with the sugar? Why does the water have to be boiling? Here’s my brilliant, insightful, educated answer: I’ve got no freaking idea.
I could say something about layers of flavors or suchlike, but I suspect that what’s really going on here is necessity as the mother of invention and the crafting, over many, many years, of a fool-proof recipe. My family wasn’t exactly poor. Certainly no more or less so than anyone else in their neighborhood. But they were working class and probably the recipe turned out like this because sometimes there were fresh herbs and sometimes dried ones. Sometimes there was pesto and sometimes there wasn’t. The sugar probably has something to do with counteracting the tomato’s acidity, but then, why use the baking soda too? And why at three different stages of the cooking process? Really. No idea. But the overall result is that if you don’t have fresh herbs handy or if you forget to add the first pinch of baking soda, don’t fret! It will all work out.
As grandma would say, “Mangia!”
Family Tomato Sauce
Makes: A metric ton (freezes well)
Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes (hands-on time: 30 minutes)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 shallot, minced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
6 springs of parsley, de-stemmed and chopped
3 springs basil, de-stemmed and chopped
3 springs oregano, de-stemmed and chopped
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons prepared basil pesto
1 heaping teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
2 cups boiling water
2 pinches baking soda, divided
Parmesan and additional parsley for garnish (optional)
1. In a large pan, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering and fragrant. Add onion and cook for 6-8 minutes or until soft. Add shallot, garlic, pesto, and fresh and dried herbs and cook for an additional 1 minute.
2. Turn down heat to medium-low. Add whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, boiling water, sugar, salt, pepper and first pinch of baking soda. Cover and simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally (check to make sure the bottom doesn’t burn, turning down heat if necessary).
3. Add second pinch of baking soda. It will fizz a bit, counteracting the acid in the tomatoes.
4. After 3 hours, uncover and continue to simmer one additional hour to allow the sauce to thicken up, continuing to stir occasionally.
5. Serve with your favorite pasta and garnish with Parmesan and additional parsley if desired