The Hot in Cleveland star opens up to A.J. Jacobs about her famous ex – and her Italian "cooking genes"

By Jeff Nelson
Updated September 12, 2014 12:15 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Valerie Bertinelli

Author A.J. Jacobs is out to trace his family tree and track down distant relatives – and map out how we’re all related somehow.

Jacobs is chatting with a famous “cousin” every month (See: last month’s sit-down with Daniel Radcliffe) until June 6, 2015, when he’s throwing a massive family reunion. (Go to globalfamilyreunion.com to join).

This month the author caught up with Hot in Cleveland actress Valerie Bertinelli.

You are, officially, my aunt’s 6th great uncle’s wife’s mother’s husband’s brother’s wife’s 8th great-granddaughter.
So I’m practically your sister.

Right. Your father’s family is from Italy. What did you get from your Italian side?
My bullheadedness. And without a doubt, my cooking genes.

Favorite Italian dish to cook?
That’s like asking my favorite baby. But I guess pasta vongole. Clams in white sauce. The key is, you have to put chili flakes in there. I’ll bring it to the reunion.

Which ancestors do you admire?
My great-grandmother was a cook for a rich family in San Remo, [Italy]. I like to think of it as an Italian Downton Abbey kind of thing. She fell in love with another worker and ended up getting pregnant. She got on a boatfrom Italy by herself with her two children, in steerage, during World War I. That girl had some cojones.

I also discovered you are distant cousins with an old boyfriend of yours, Steven Spielberg.
That relationship didn’t last long. I think he tired of me quickly. I was 19, he was in his 30s. My life might have gone very differently had he not. But I’m happy with the way my life came out.

For more of Jacobs’s interview wither Bertinelli, pick up the Sept. 22 issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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