Fernando first sees Marlena across the Piazza San Marco and falls in love from afar. When he sees her again in a Venice café a year later, he knows it is fate. He knows little English; she, a divorced American chef traveling through Italy, speaks only food-based Italian. Marlena thought she was done with romantic love, incapable of intimacy. Yet within months of their first meeting, she has quit her job, sold her house in St. Louis, kissed her two grown sons good-bye, and moved to Venice to marry “the stranger,” as she calls Fernando.
This deliciously satisfying memoir is filled with the foods and flavors of Italy and peppered with culinary observations and recipes. But the main course here is an enchanting true story about a woman who falls in love with both a man and a city, and finally finds the home she didn’t even know she was missing.
On a visit to Venice, de Blasi meets a local bank manager who falls in love with her at first sight. After "the stranger" (as she coyly calls him throughout the book) pursues her back to her home in St. Louis, Mo., she agrees to return to Italy and marry him, leaving behind her grown children and her job as chef and partner in a cafe. Although the banker, Fernando, lives in a bunkerlike postwar condominium on the Lido rather than the Venetian palazzo of her dreams, and some of his European ideas about women clash with her American temperament, the relationship works. She survives his criticism of her housekeeping and his displeasure at her insistence on remaining a serious cook (in modern Italy "No one bakes bread or dolci or makes pasta at home," he tells her), and they marry. Then one day Fernando surprises her by announcing that he is quitting his job at the bank where he has worked for 26 years. They leave Venice, he espouses her interest in food and they now direct gastronomic tours of Tuscany and Umbria. De Blasi's breathless descriptions of her improbable love affair can be cloying, but she makes up for these excesses with her enchanting accounts of Venice, especially of the markets at the Rialto. She conjures up vivid images of produce "so sumptuously laid as to be awaiting Caravaggio" and picturesque scenes of the vendors, such as the egg lady who keeps her hens under her table, collects the eggs as soon as they are laid and wraps each one in newspaper, "twisting both ends so that the confection looks like a rustic prize for a child's party." In a final section entitled "Food for a Stranger," de Blasi (Regional Foods of Northern Italy) includes recipes for a few of the dishes with which she charmed the stranger.