Introducing Rita Calabrese in The Secret Poison Garden

April 28, 2018 by in category Apples & Oranges by Marianne H. Donley tagged as , with 4 and 0
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Rita Calabrese | Maureen Klovers | A Slice of Orange


A Slice of Orange is please to introduce you to Rita Calabrese, the sleuth in Maureen Klovers’ new culinary cozy mystery The Secret Poison Garden.  The mystery is available for pre-order and will be released on June 14, 2018.  We have an excerpt from the book and Rita’s recipe for pasta all’arrabbiata, angry style sauce servered on strozzapreti—“strangle the priest” pasta.




The Secret Garden | Maureen Klovers | A Slice of OrangeRita Calabrese is the guardian angel of the bucolic Hudson Valley hamlet of Acorn Hollow—and of her lovable but exasperating famiglia.  She’s always fortifying her down-on-their-luck neighbors with secret deliveries of home-grown vegetables and ravioli alla zucca, sneaking cannoli into her gruff husband’s lunch, and meddling in (or, as she would say, “improving”) the lives of her three grown children.

But now, on the eve of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita’s looking for a meaningful second act—and finds as a reporter for the local paper. Her profiles of Acorn Hollow’s eccentric citizens, including the soft-spoken biology teacher with a secret poison garden, soon make her the toast of the town.  But when the beloved football coach is murdered and Rita’s investigation uncovers not only a messy love triangle, but also rumors of her ne’er-do-well son Vinnie’s involvement, she finds her newfound journalistic zeal on a collision course with her fierce maternal instinct.


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The Secret Poison Garden

Maureen Klovers


Rita has recently discovered that her oldest son, Marco, is having an affair and her youngest son, Vinnie, is a suspect in the death of the town’s beloved football coach, and she communicates her anger through her cooking….


Rita could not remember the last time she had been so furious with her children. Furious, and disappointed. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she chopped a large yellow onion. Each time her enormous knife hit the butcher block surface with a satisfying sharp, quick chop, she remembered yet another time her children had infuriated her.


There was the time that Vinnie and Gina had repurposed the wise men and animals in nonna’s presepe—the one that had been lovingly carved by nonna’s nonno—for a Jurassic Park tableau. She shuddered to think of the dinosaur scales they had drawn on the camels in green permanent marker.


There was the time that Vinnie had built a skateboard ramp off of the roof of the garage while she was at bridge club—and broken his ankle right before what was supposed to have been Rita’s first trip to Italy. Instead of traipsing through the vineyards of Tuscany, she’d spent the next two weeks waiting on him hand and foot.

Chop, chop, chop.

The onions were now reduced to little slivers. Her eyes no longer stung with their potency, but the tears kept coming nonetheless.

Rita scraped the onions into the frying pan, and the pan—a seething, searing-hot mixture of bacon fat and butter—crackled its angry response. “My thoughts exactly,” Rita murmured.

No, this time was different. All of the previous times had involved just Vinnie, or occasionally Gina and Vinnie. But never, ever Marco. About the worst thing he had ever done was to ruin his dinner with a few extra cookies.

Marco had never even cheated on a test, so it seemed completely out of character for him to cheat on Susan. Then again, the widow had warned her, hadn’t she? No one is ever who he or she seems.

Rita had initially thought to make a simple penne with marinara sauce for dinner, but such a meal was no match for her mood. Tonight, she thought grimly, is a night for pasta all’arrabbiata. Arrabbiata literally meant “angry.” Her mother and nonna had made pasta all’arrabbiata for two reasons: either to signal that they were angry—and the angrier they were, the longer they left the red chili pepper in the sauce—or to make their husbands come un leone so that they could fare un maschio. Rita still blushed when she recalled their words; she thought of her father and nonno as sweet, harmless old men—hardly “lions.”

Hopefully Sal would not misinterpret the meal, since she had no desire for a lion in her bed tonight. All she wanted was to make Vinnie sweat—literally. She dumped a palmful of blazing hot chili pepper flakes into the pan and gave Marco a call.

“I saw Courtney D’Agostino today,” she shouted over the roar of the food processor as she puréed the tomatoes.


“Coming out of the Sunshine Café. She looked terrific. I wonder who she was meeting.”


His nonchalance was maddening. If he was wracked by guilt, he certainly was hiding it well.

“Ma, I’ve got to go. I’ve got a patient.”

“Of course you do,” she huffed. “Say hello to Susan for me,” she added darkly. “She’s a sweet girl.”

Marco sounded baffled. “Yes, she is. Later, ma.”

Rita stabbed the “off” button and rooted around in the cupboard for some penne pasta, then changed her mind. She was more than arrabbiata today—she was arrabbiatissima.

And the only way to make pasta all’arrabbiata even more arrabbiata was to make it not with the traditional penne but with strozzapreti—“strangle the priest” pasta. Curly and slightly irregular, her nonna claimed that it was so dubbed because it was beloved by gluttonous priests who would eat so many that they would practically choke to death.

When Sal and Vinnie trooped through the door half an hour later, Rita served them plates piled high with steaming strozzapreti pasta and some very hot arrabbiata sauce—so hot that Sal nearly choked after his bite.

“Did you have a good day, cara?” he asked suspiciously as he reached for his water glass.

“No,” she said, glaring at Vinnie.

“Anything on your mind, ma?” he asked nervously, pushing the pasta around on his plate.

Without answering, she countered, “Anything on yours?”

“Uh, no. Just work, you know, the usual. Everything’s good.”

“I’m your mother, Vinnie.”

He shot a perplexed look at his father, who raised his eyes to the ceiling and shrugged.

“Yeah, I know, ma.”

“If you’re in trouble, Vin, I can help.”

“Ain’t got no trouble, ma. I swear.”

They ate the rest of the meal in silence.



All’arrabbiata (“angry style”) sauce derives its heat from chili peppers. Italian grandmothers traditionally made this sauce by simmering a whole chili pepper in the pot, but using chili pepper flakes more evenly distributes the spice.

While this sauce is traditionally served with penne pasta, try it with strozzapreti (“strangle the priest” pasta). The name packs an angry punch just like the sauce…and the long, hearty strands are delicious!

¼ cup olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

½ carrot, diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups pancetta (Italian bacon), diced

6 anchovy fillets

4 lbs. very ripe San Marzano tomatoes, peeled, seeds removed, and chopped

1 tbsp. sugar

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

¼ cup fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces

½ tbsp. dried oregano

2-3 teaspoons chili pepper flakes

In a medium saucepan, on low heat, combine olive oil, onion, carrot, pancetta, and anchovies.  Cook until onions are translucent. Then add garlic for an additional 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Pour this mixture into a slow cooker.

Boil water in your largest pot. Once water is at a rolling boil, turn off heat and immediately place all tomatoes into pot.  After one minute, remove and wait until these are cool enough to handle.  Peel tomatoes by hand (the hot water should have made the skins wrinkly and easy to remove). Discard skins. Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds.  Purée half of the tomatoes in a blender and dice the other half.  Then place both the diced and the puréed tomatoes in a slow cooker.

Add sugar, vinegar, basil, oregano, and chili flakes to the slow cooker. Turn on low heat and cook for eight hours.

Maureen Klovers

Maureen Klovers has held numerous positions in government, including a stint as a U.S. intelligence officer, and was a political commentator on DC 101’s talk radio show “Neighborhood Stuff.” Ms. Klovers has traveled extensively in the United States, Europe, China, India, and Latin America. She’s hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, been escorted through a Bolivian prison by a German narco-trafficker, and fished for piranhas in Venezuela. She received a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations (with a focus on Latin American politics) from the College of William and Mary in 1999 and a Master’s of Public Policy and Master’s of Business Administration from Georgetown University in 2006. She lives with her husband, Kevin, in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information or to sign up for her newsletter, please visit


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  • Veronica Jorge says:

    Hi Maureen, Very entertaining story. Love the ‘strangle the priest pasta.’ And thanks for the recipe.

  • Marianne says:

    That was my favorite part as well. I’m going to have to find that pasta, because I would laugh the whole time I was cooking dinner.

  • Marianne says:

    And Rita is on my To Be Read list.

  • Thanks, Veronica! This is a versatile recipe–if you omit the pancetta and chili pepper, you have a fabulous marinara sauce!

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