Not even 10 minutes into the first episode of Netflix’s limited series From Scratch, our leading lady voices what proves to be a kind of thesis statement for what soon becomes a swoon-worthy romantic story: “I came here to have my own renaissance,” she tells a newfound friend in Florence, Italy, where the Texas-born soon-to-be-law-school dropout moved to pursue her own artistic ambitions. “Last thing I want is to find love while I’m here.” Famous last words, right? Because, of course, soon after Amy (Zoe Saldaña) makes such a pronouncement, she finds herself all but going back on her word. The culprit? Lino (Eugenio Mastrandrea), a dashing Sicilian chef who woos her and gives her the kind of summer fling Diane Lane films are made of.
Then again, anyone who’s read Tembi Locke’s memoir of the same name (or who notices the melancholic notes the series begins with) knows that From Scratch is more than a lush, swoon-worthy romp through Italy. But it does begin as one. Its opening episode makes for an extended (and quite picturesque) meet-cute where we witness Amy and Lino’s first flush of love and lust, all of it filled with many a sun-dappled daytime street encounter and lots of late night culinary meetings. Soon, though, the series takes us back to Los Angeles, where the young couple struggle to turn that first spark into a viable long-term relationship.
Several obstacles stand in their way though. There’s Lino’s immigration status, which forces the talented chef (“you’re an artist,” Amy tells him, without one hint of irony if plenty of self-deprecation) to plate subpar Italian-American cuisine at a restaurant he’d never be caught dead eating at. There’s Amy’s dwindling artistic aspirations; she’s caught, instead, employed at an art gallery working for the kind of folks she should be calling colleagues instead. And then, to add to their modern-day star-crossed-lovers vibe, they each have their own families to contend with. His has all but disowned him (he left for America to pursue his passion, imagine that!), while hers proves to be a thorn in her side, what with their strong-willed ideas about what proper careers and futures should look like. (Hint: They do not involve artists and chefs and wayward ideas about artistic integrity.)
The push and pull between the two families, a rural Sicilian one led by an all-too-proud patriarch, the other a splintered Texan one with many a big personality, puts into further relief just how unique Amy and Lino are. They are both driven by emotions, forgoing the pragmatic spirit each of their families extoll. Theirs is a relationship forged on passion, for each other and for their respective callings—he, a chef, she, a visual artist.
If this all sounds like From Scratch is a delightful romantic romp, know that a few episodes in, the series takes a decidedly serious turn, throwing Lino and Amy’s love-built life in Los Angeles into turmoil. The tonal shift this requires feels quite jarring, especially since its opening episode so plays up the show’s whimsical charm, with meet cutes and foodie-friendly cinematography that doubles as a postcard-ready tourist ad for Florence, setting up a sunny love story that grows darker and darker with every episode. Only, of course, for some light at the end of the tunnel to shine through.
It must be said, though, that Saldaña and Mastrandrea are charming together. And the ensemble cast around them is, when given the chance, equally mesmerizing. (Danielle Deadwyler, for instance, here playing Amy’s sister, continues to establish herself as a formidable screen presence.) These strong performances work hard—too hard at times—to fix the paper-thin characterizations From Scratch sketches out as it shuttles from Italy to L.A. and then back (and back!) again. Indeed, the series’ many time jumps, which end up covering the years Amy and Lino shared together, often require the complexities inherent in their relationship to be flattened into issues neatly resolved in hourlong installments. And in the show’s most risible moments, even their families start to feel like they’re bordering on caricatures. This becomes particularly acute once the series moves away from its romcom start and moves squarely into that more maudlin, have-your-tissues-ready territory with the arrival of a particularly dour medical diagnosis.
As a show of meals doled out over distinct episodes, From Scratch is handily engaging, even if the final product never quite adds up to the sum of its sumptuous parts. Perhaps it’s best to understand it as comfort food of a television show that only sometimes feels algorithmically created. (It’s for the foodie/travel lover in your life who enjoys Chef’s Table and Under The Tuscan Sun, with a dash of A Walk To Remember.) And thinking of it as such, the limited series serves up exactly what you’d expect.
From Scratch premieres October 21 on Netflix.