“This is your Diane Lane Under the Tuscan Sun moment.” An intriguing woman says this to Dev (Aziz Ansari) over pasta in Master of None’s new season after he explains he landed in Modena, Italy after a breakup. She’s joking, but it’s actually a fair description of the Italy-set episodes that begin season two. In many ways, Dev has come to Italy to find himself, but unlike the Eat, Pray, Love set, going abroad has only made him lonelier.
When season one of MoN ended with Dev on a plane to Italy to study pasta making, I was more than a little excited. My mother is from Italy, and I spent a good chunk of my childhood summers there shuttling from city to city visiting my extended family from as far south as Sicily, all the way north to Udine province along the Austrian border. Unfortunately, my own experience of Italy has rarely, if ever, lined up with the wider American culture’s perception of it, which usually falls into one of two camps: either the cartoonish Chef Boyardee or the stylish 60s mod fantasy. But given the empathy MoN offers for other people’s perspectives and the focus it often places on food, I knew I was in store for a portrait of Italy most Americans are only nominally aware of.
And with those first couple Modena-set episodes of season two, MoN does not disappoint. Granted, Ansari and Alan Yang’s series most definitely falls into the stylish Italian camp, from their first episode’s homage to 1948 De Sica film Ladri di Bicicletta, to a jaunt through the beautiful countryside on Vespas. But the show digs deeper to get at Dev’s longing for connection, not only in love but also in what he does every day. Early on, we’re treated to Dev making pasta from scratch as he mixes the dough, cuts it into strips, and folds tortellini which fail to receive his mentor’s seal of approval. It’s tactile and satisfying as he kneads the dough, turning it into something solid, and it shows the connection he now has to his favorite food.
Throughout both episodes, Dev eats at to-die-for Italian restaurants in the small city of Modena, gets panini with big bud Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and even shows off the local market. To Americans it looks like the most gorgeous lifestyle porn available, but in Italy much of it is just par for the course. As Dev and Arnold walk through the aisles of Mercato Albinello, fresh fruit and vegetables pop on the screen like the loveliest Whole Foods commercial you could hope to see. In the United States, the simplicity of fresh food and time-consuming Italian customs become something expensive, pretentious, fetishized — in other words, they’re products to be consumed rather than experiences we use to connect with loved ones.
Dev’s desire to eat at the best restaurants in Modena is reminiscent of the season one, when he obsesses over finding the best tacos and deep dives into research that takes so long he misses out entirely. In Italy, Dev’s better prepared with an advance reservation to Hosteria Giusti for his birthday (and being alone allows him the freedom to invite Sara, the aforementioned mysterious woman to dine with him). He also hits the food tourism jackpot when Arnold’s family connection conveniently gets them a table at Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star ristorante with an impossibly long waiting list. And while it’s certainly enjoyable to see these eateries many of us couldn’t otherwise access, Dev and Arnold’s searching for the absolute best tasty bites is a strikingly American attitude. It doesn’t allow for the sense of discovery while traveling or living abroad, even if it provides an enviable Instagram feed.
But if I’d focused on ticking the food tourism boxes on my trips abroad rather than letting myself wander into unassuming trattorias or taking recommendations from family, I’d have missed out on much of the experience. Perhaps Dev could meet more people in Italy by eating in more places like the one where he’s apprenticing, called simply “Pasta Fresca: Boutique del Tortellino.” Furthermore, it’s Italy. They kinda have the market cornered on offering the best Italian food no matter where you go.
Italian food is about communication, not simply sustenance. It’s used to show care and love. My family there certainly lives up to the stereotype of women who insist you eat more and more, but it’s out of a desire to show their love. My zia plies me with polenta before bringing out the tiramisu she’s made from scratch, something that takes half a day of labor. My aunts in Sicily visit the bakery every couple of days for bread, and my uncle brings in home grown fruit by the basketful which they trade with neighbors for other products. Even when I visit my parents, my mother will make fresh pesto upon overhearing how much I enjoy her recipe. It’s cultivated, not curated.
But sadly in Master of None, we never see Dev eating with an Italian family in Modena, not even Francesca’s family who are teaching him the art of tortellini making. In fact, the one instance we witness him in someone else’s home (naturally joined by a pot of pasta and the most charming child in little Mario), it’s because he’s sure the son in the household has stolen his phone. There, he’s alienated leagues beyond a simple language barrier and when Mario asks for a taste of the pasta, the mistress of the house shoos them out.
By apprenticing in Italy, Dev experiences the country in a more meaningful way than many Americans, but since so much of his experience is focused more on consumption — trying new restaurants, showing off the market, taking in cheese cellars — he still doesn’t partake in the culture as deeply as he might otherwise. His experience there is certainly more meaningful than his later turn as host of highly-commercialized reality show Clash of the Cupcakes, with its candy-colored camouflage logo and TV pep. But with so much of the focus on the product while he’s in Italy, Dev unfortunately isn’t able to get his Under the Tuscan Sun transformation. And maybe that’s the point. A sojourn abroad and a plate of spaghetti can’t fix your loneliness, unless you’re able to reach out and share them.
But the beauty of MoN season 2 is that Dev’s interactions with Italian culture parallel his relationship with Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi): perhaps he goes deeper than others tread, but still not deep enough to truly connect. And that illustrates how Dev is a far more flawed and interesting character than he was in season one.
Allora. Aziz, next time you’re in Italy, how about you come visit my fam? I’d even bet my zia would make you that homemade Tiramisu.
Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, The Hairpin, Splitsider, and Screener, and her humor writing has run in McSweeney’s and National Lampoon.