Bertinelli's brother Patrick, who lives in Scottsdale, introduced Valerie to his friend Vitale in 2004, during one of her visits to her parents, who also live in Arizona. Vitale, the father of four children now ages 11 to 19, was recently divorced. "Val and I were coming from a tough time and wanting to move on but didn't want to trust anyone," he says. The two bonded initially over their similar heritages. Bertinelli's father is Italian; Vitale is Italian-Sicilian. "We just understood each other completely," Vitale says. "My family is her family. It wasn't love at first sight; it was family at first sight."
Bertinelli says her weight was never an issue for Vitale. "I've never felt more beautiful at any weight than when Tom looks at me. He loved me no matter what. In his way, he's teaching me to love myself just as I am."
Acceptance from the person you love is a wonderful thing—but not a cure-all. In early 2006, Bertinelli began complaining of knee pain and found herself winded. Jenny Craig soon came calling, and the timing was perfect. Bertinelli signed on with the weight-loss company, dropped to less than 130 pounds, and wrote a book about it. Then came the task of maintaining the loss. Initially she walked for exercise, but in 2008 she hired a personal trainer with the goal of getting into bikini shape. The following July, she completed a half marathon in Sonoma in an impressive 2 hours, 13 minutes. She beat Vitale, who ran the event with her, by 8 minutes. "And he's 16 months younger than I am." Bertinelli jokes: "I tell him I'm a year-and-a-half smarter."
In 2005 Vitale and his oldest son, Tony, now 19, moved into Bertinelli's Malibu beachfront home. His three younger children often come for visits, allowing Bertinelli to master the art of blending families. "It's not easy," she admits with a laugh. "I'm looking forward to being an empty nester."
Vitale, who was once ordained a nondenominational minister, has helped Catholic-raised Bertinelli tap into her spiritual side. "I believe in the whole karma thing—sowing and reaping," Vitale says. "We try to plant good stuff every day." To that end, Bertinelli made peace with Van Halen, who went into rehab and is now, she says, "a terrific dad." She allowed Wolfie, currently 19 and a "brilliant musician"—he plays guitar, piano, bass, and drums—to tour with his father in 2007. And she and Vitale attended Van Halen's 2009 wedding (complete with a nonalcoholic bar) to stuntwoman Janie Liszewski.
Reconciliation and acceptance have become part of Bertinelli's philosophy of maintenance, something she explored in her second book, Finding It: And Satisfying My Hunger for Life Without Opening the Fridge, released late last year. She's also adopted a much more positive approach, especially when it comes to her view of herself. Says Bertinelli: "I don't want to believe the bad stuff anymore. I believe that I'm worth having a beautiful, blessed life. Every day, I thank God for it."
Life's blessings were most certainly on display in Italy, a place neither Bertinelli nor Vitale had visited. "Oh my God, what the heck took me so long to go?" Bertinelli says now.
Of course, the surprise engagement was the highlight. One night, back in their Florence hotel room after dinner at the city's oldest restaurant, Ristorante Buca Lapi, Vitale slipped a platinum wedding band engraved with Romanesque flourishes onto Bertinelli's finger and proposed. "If the time wasn't right, I wouldn't have asked," Vitale says. "We're both still a little afraid of commitment, but then we were over there, and it was like our souls were calibrated."
"I've never had a male friend like I have with Tom," says Bertinelli. "Mature love doesn't mean you have to be mature all the time—we definitely have our immature moments. But when disagreements come up, we're able to talk in a way that's not attacking, and we'll still love one another."
Now Bertinelli has a wedding to look forward to, and, more immediately, that new sitcom. It follows three middle-aged Los Angeles women who accidentally end up in Ohio and stay awhile when they discover they are, as the title suggests, hot in Cleveland. Both the casting and the plot reflect Bertinelli's belief that "women of this age are not dead. We're part of the baby boomers. We're big, man!
"You know what's so great about being this age?" Bertinelli says. "We're smarter. And we're not too old to grow. When I was Wolfie's age, my mom would try to tell me something, and I was like, 'She doesn't know what she's talking about.'
"God, she so knew what she was talking about!"