One Question Quiz
All of Nicky Pellegrino’s novels. (Image: Tina Tiller)
All of Nicky Pellegrino’s novels. (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksDecember 19, 2023

Every Nicky Pellegrino novel, ranked and reviewed

All of Nicky Pellegrino’s novels. (Image: Tina Tiller)
All of Nicky Pellegrino’s novels. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Catherine Robertson reads her way through all fourteen of Nicky Pellegrino’s (delicious) novels just in time for the holidays.

At my first ever public speaking event as an author, I had to apologise for not being Nicky Pellegrino. Nicky had the flu, and I was drafted in as a last-minute replacement. Afterwards, I had to apologise again to everyone who’d brought books to be signed by her. A few kind souls bought my novel, but I could tell it would be found wanting. No gorgeous Italian settings. No delicious food. No gorgeous and delicious Italian men. Plus, I was not, and have never been, a tall, glamorous redhead. (To rub that in, I once chaired a session with Nicky and Catherine Chidgey.)

That event was in 2011, and Nicky had published four novels. This year, she published her 14th. Over the last few weeks, I have read or re-read every one, and I want to put Nicky up on a pedestal. Her novels are entertaining, a delight to read, but they are not fluffy. They are not “chick lit”. They are knowing, compassionate and moving explorations of the constant tensions in women’s lives, pulled between familial and societal expectations and their own needs and desires. Nicky’s women are of all ages, some are beautiful, some very ordinary. What they have in common is agency, and a commitment to self-determination. None of them needs a man to complete them. Elena Ferrante may be lauded as the literary chronicler of women’s lives, but our Nicky is the commercial fiction queen of it. Bravissima. 

Nicky Pellegrino (Photo: Supplied)

I’ve ranked them based on purely personal criteria that vaguely correspond to the Italianinity of the setting, the draw of the story, and how much I crave Prosecco and olives after reading. If you’re a fan, I guarantee you will one hundred per cent disagree with my choices but così è la vita. No corrispondenza will be entered into.

14. Recipe for Life (2010)

In the aftermath of sexual assault, Alice detaches from her life and is pulled along in the slipstream of others, reckless best friend Leila, on-and-off boyfriend Charlie, perfectionist boss and then lover, Tonino. The one place Alice feels alive is the Villa Rosa in Southern Italy, languishing between owners, its gardens kept tidy by old Babetta next door, whose husband, Nunzio, has retreated into his own silent world. Over two decades, we follow both women, as they do their best with what life’s given them. A novel in a minor key, and I’m not sure Alice ends up with the right bloke. Star dish: Pomegranate preserves.

13. PS, Come to Italy (2023) 

Belle’s beloved husband Ari is showing signs of dementia. Belle reaches out to an online help group, where she connects with Enrico in Puglia. After both their spouses pass away, Enrico invites Belle to Italy. What he fails to mention is that he is stonkingly rich, lives in a massive palazzo, and is constantly at odds with his fractious family. It is not the restful break Belle had imagined. Food takes a back seat in this novel and I felt its lack. Also Enrico is not as sexy as Ari was. Star dish: Coffee and biscotti.

12. Tiny Pieces of Us (2020)

Through her job as a tabloid journalist, heart transplant recipient, Vivi, makes not entirely ethical contact with Grace, the mother of the 16-year-old donor, and decides to help Grace track down all the other people saved by her son’s death. This diversion into Jojo Moyes territory would be the odd novel out except that Italy, the Villa Rosa and la cucina make a solid re-appearance. Star dish: two Big Macs, because they’re not really that big.

11. A Year at Hotel Gondola (2018)

Coco from One Summer in Venice (see below) is back, still surrounded by dogs and lovers, but now owner of a vintage clothing shop. Coco has plenty of advice for TV travel personality Kat Black, 50, in a career slump and questioning her choice to spend a year in a relationship with busy hotelier, Massimo, whose ex-wife isn’t as ex as Kat might have wished. An authorial decision about a character I adore works but I still resent it. Star dish: the Hugo cocktail.

10. To Italy, With Love (2021)

Sarah-Jane creates recipes for celebrity chef and lover Tom. When he dumps her professionally and personally, she buys a second-hand Saab convertible and flees to Italy with her border terrier, Baxter. The Saab breaks down in tiny Montenello, and Sarah-Jane is stuck while the town’s only mechanic (and hottest man) begins the world’s slowest repair job. Sarah-Jane’s story alternates with trattoria owner Assunta’s, who in her 50s may finally be making some changes to her own life. Cannot forgive Sarah-Jane’s very poor choice mid book. Star dish: Assunta’s roast lamb with anchovy sauce. 

9. Delicious (2005)

Jojo Moyes called Nicky’s debut novel “heartrending and compelling”. It’s one of her more expansive storylines, starting in Italy in the mid-60s before shifting to London in 2000. There is an unwanted pregnancy, a forced marriage, escape to a new life, questions, mysteries and family reconnections. The tone is more often serious than light, and there is no neat, pat ending. Star dish: Pepina’s golden crusty bread.

8. Under Italian Skies (2016)

Stella’s 49 and divorced. Her beloved employer’s sudden death has put paid to her job of 25 years and given her the urge to spread her wings. How about a house swap? She takes the Villa Rosa, while its current owner, Leo, takes her flat in Campden. I liked Stella fine but I loved spending time with her older Italian friends, Tosca and Raffaella, whose snippy banter is sheer joy. Star dish: fig-flavoured drinking vinegar.

7. The Italian Wedding (2009)

Our first meeting with the London-based Martinelli sisters: Pieta, who lacks confidence, and chef Addolorata, who does not and whose wedding day is imminent. Their restaurateur father, Beppi, has been feuding for decades with his former best friend, Gianfranco, and neither sister knows why. The novel begins to alternate the contemporary dramas with the Rome-based coming-of-age story of their sisters’ English mother, Catherine. I did want to know the bad thing Gianfranco had done, but Catherine’s a bit too staid to merit equal billing with her daughters. Star dish: Beppi’s self-proclaimed famous lasagne.

6. The Villa Girls (2011)

The Villa Rosa is back, and so is Addolorata Martinelli, but as a supporting character in this story of four English school friends who vow to holiday together every three years in a rented villa. The main focus is on Rosie, whose parents die in a car crash when she’s in her mid-teens, leaving her alone and adrift. On the Italian side, we have Enzo, heir to a family olive oil business that may have fallen foul of the wrong Calabrian crowd. The story spans decades but it cracks along to a satisfying ending. Star dish: Nonna’s virgin olive oil.

5. One Summer in Venice (2015)

Addolorata Martinelli is back again, and her life is going badly. She works too hard, drinks too much, and now her husband says he wants to leave. Her sister Pieta buys her tickets to Venice, originally for a week, but Addolorata decides to stay for the summer and sort out her shit. Stealing the scene is one of Nicky’s greatest characters, Coco, septuagenarian style icon surrounded by small dogs and devoted lovers. Read for tango, entanglements and Prosecco. Star dish: Risi e Bisi, Venetian rice and peas.

4. The Food of Love Cookery School (2013)

Next May, Nicky is taking one lucky group on a food tour of Sicily. For the rest of us, this book is a decent consolation prize. Four women meet for the first time at Luca Amore’s Food of Love Cooking School in a small, steep Sicilian town. There’s widow Val, stoic Moll, hard-edged Tricia, and sweet recent divorcée, Poppy. There’s also Luca’s plotting ex, Orsolina, and her silver fox father, Vincenzo. Everyone has a secret, but the FOOD steals the show. So much of it and every morsel a banger. Star dish: Chocolate chicken, which begins “marinate the chicken in Prosecco overnight”. 

3. A Dream of Italy (2019)

Buy a house in southern Italy for just one Euro! Has there ever been a more beguiling offer? Who knows how it turned out in real life, but in this novel, it’s peachy. The three successful bidders, divorced Mimi, beautiful Elise, and stylish couple Edward and Gino, find everything they’re looking for in the tiny, crumbling town of Montenello and I could not have been happier for them. Will re-read whenever I feel sad. Star dish: Cecilia’s cannoli.

2. When in Rome (2012)

I was a third into this novel before I realised the main character was Mario Lanza. Ostensibly, this is the story of 19-year-old Serafina, who lives in poverty with her two sisters and their call-girl mother in 1950’s Rome. When Lanza, then the world’s highest-paid recording star, brings his family to Rome to shoot a movie, Serafina lands a job as companion to his wife, Betty, and becomes an indispensable part of their turbulent domestic life. I think this book is a triumph. Unsentimental but genuinely moving, brilliantly characterised, perfectly paced. Star dish: Buffalo mozzarella, “the nearest food to kissing someone”.

1. Summer at the Villa Rosa (2008)

Set in mid-20th century, this is where we first meet both the Villa Rosa and Rafaella. Widowed young and shunned by her late husband’s wealthy family, Rafaella is caught up in the town’s personal and civic dramas as she tries to rebuild her life. This is Nicky’s strongest novel about women, with characters I deeply cared about, prickly Silvana, bereft Carlotta, and Rafaella herself, unfailingly loyal and determined not to be broken. Poignant and powerful, a superb book by any standard. Star dish: margherita pizza, because it has everything you need.

Nicky Pellegrino’s books can be purchased at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington, or borrowed from your local library.

Keep going!