TAMPA — It wasn't unusual to hear a small woman, standing about 5 feet 2, beckoning you to eat as you entered her home.
When they were growing up, Marie Antoinette Valenti's grandchildren gathered at her house every Sunday for dinner. But it was more than dinner.
"It was always a 10-course meal," said Catherine Storch, her granddaughter.
Mrs. Valenti died May 12 of heart problems. She was 87. Her death came six weeks after that of her husband, Sexton, of Sexton Valenti Produce.
They complemented each other. He was a man with a produce company, and she was a woman who loved to cook. She was a seasoned Italian chef with endless access to fresh tomatoes and other Italian staples.
"She did great things with chicken," said her brother, Nelson A. Italiano, founder of Italiano Insurance Inc. Mrs. Valenti was best known for her chicken cacciatore, but her soups and desserts were a close second.
When Storch, 39, would spend the night as a child, she and her cousins would wake up to a homemade breakfast, complete with freshly squeezed orange juice from fruit picked off the tree that morning.
Storch knew Mrs. Valenti as "Nani" and grew up learning how to cook beside her.
"The recipe was to cook with love," she said. "She told me, 'I never write anything down.' "
Her meals also gave her an audience. Mrs. Valenti strived to entertain people. She danced and sang for her guests.
"She would light up any time anyone walked into a room," said Michael Sexton Faltau, her 27-year-old grandson.
"Even in her last days in the hospital, she danced in her hospital bed for the doctor," granddaughter Storch wrote for the eulogy Friday at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa.
Mrs. Valenti loved holidays, especially Christmas Eve.
"We'd go there on Christmas Eve, 50 or 60 people would come, and she'd have enough food for all of them," said Italiano, 80.
Her dinner guests included former Gov. Ruben Askew, who went to college with Italiano.
Mrs. Valenti knew politicians but never got involved in politics, Italiano said. Instead, she opened her home and her heart.
She never stopped moving. She played tennis, swam and could perform off the high dive. As a youngster, she was part of the pep squad at Plant High School.
As a young woman, Mrs. Valenti would make the trip to Tallahassee to watch her brother play for the Seminoles.
"She would always bring a snack or two for me," he said.
Italiano will remember his sister as a nurturer.
"Her station in life was that she loved and took care of her family. All 34 of us," he said.
Staff writer Amy Mariani can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226--3374.