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One day while she was looking for work in midtown Manhattan, Mary Tantillo found herself in an elevator with Diane von Furstenberg, the famous creator and designer of an iconic wrap dress.

Tantillo was on her way to apply for an administrative position, a job whose requirements fit nicely with her proficiency in Italian, a skill she'd honed at Stonybrook College in her native Long Island. But it wasn't her language skills that landed her the job. It was her astrological sign.

When von Furstenberg found out that Tantillo was a Virgo, she concluded Tantillo was methodical enough to be her personal assistant, the gatekeeper to both her business and personal lives.

“I soon found out,” Tantillo said, “she was a powerhouse and a brilliant woman who was up on everything. She read five newspapers every morning and was connected to the artistic community as well as business entrepreneurs. She knew Bianca Jagger and Sting. Henry Kissinger was a friend whom she entertained on weekends at her country home. Her mother-in-law was an Agnelli, the most famous family in Italy who owned Fiat.”

Becoming adept at navigating a high-octane world, Tantillo later became personal assistant to Claudia Cohen, the Park Avenue celebrity columnist who specialized in the high profile lives of people like Regis and Kathy Lee.

And then, suddenly, everything changed.

Tantillo was home in her Upper East Side apartment after the birth of her second son when terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center.

“It was so terrifying,” she recalled. “We didn’t know what was going to happen and  thought we were under attack. On the streets, we all kept looking up because a plane might come over.  I said to my now-former husband who grew up in Asheville that we should go.  All I was thinking of was protecting my babies. I had to take my two little sons away from this scary place.”

Once settled in the Swannanoa Valley, Tantillo taught Spanish while seeking a challenging, meaningful venture that would allow her to be true to herself. She found it through her 6-year-old son, whose problems with concentration evaporated after she put him on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet.

Making meals at home for him wasn't hard, but making desserts that adhered to his diet was. She sought advice from chef Joe Scully at the Corner Kitchen in Asheville's Biltmore Village and produced diary- and gluten-free desserts so tasty that Scully included them on his menu. So did Maria Papanastasiou, owner of Filo Bakery in East Asheville.

Knowing that other moms were considering dietary solutions to their childrens' autism and ADHD, Tantillo started a business backed by her big brother, a successful New York accountant who wanted  to make her dreams come true. She leased warehouse space in Eastside Business Park in Black Mountain, an “ideally tranquil” place for her growing business, she said.

"It was like a blank canvas,” she said of the space. She installed baking equipment, hired assistants and created Dolci di Maria Gluten-Free Italian Desserts (dolcidimaria.com). Her cakes, brownies, muffins and more are sold at the Black Mountain Tailgate Market, The Dripolator and Dynamite Coffee, as well at Roots & Fruits Organic Market, Ingles Markets and Park Rhythms, the summer music festival at Lake Tomahawk.

Tantillo's current mission is to create a national brand for people of all ages with food sensitivities.

"I want everyone who ordinarily can’t indulge to partake - and feel really good about it,” she said.

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who are drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.

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