January 17, 2020

The Vertical Line on MHZ – Italian tv series

MHZ Choice, the tv streaming service, continues to introduce me to European television programs that I can’t find other places. The Vertical Line, an 8 episode dramedy from Italy is the freshest series I have seen in quite a while.

The cancer ward of an Italian public hospital seems like an unlikely place for a television show meant as entertainment, but each brief episode packs a punch of deep emotional truths and yes, comedy.

The main character, Luigi, played by the expressive-eyed Valerio Mastrandrea, is a devoted fortyish husband and father of a young child with a baby on the way. He tragically finds out he has a cancerous tumor that must be surgically removed.

He becomes part of an oncology ward where he encounters quirky patients, blasé doctors, aggressive nurses and med-techs and a morose hospital chaplain.

The show is semi-autobiographical in that the creator, Mattia Torre passed away on July 2019 at the age of 47 after experiences with the Italian medical establishment. As his tv swan song, Torre depicts joy and humor in The Vertical Line, as well as sadness in this excellent limited-run series.

If you want something completely different from American medical shows, check out The Vertical Line currently streaming on MHZ Choice. As a reminder, you can add MHZ Choice to your Amazon Prime Video package or sign up for the stand-alone app. It is worth every penny of the monthly $7.99 or $89.99 for the year.

https://watch.mhzchoice.com/

HBO – More than just Game of Thrones

Just when I was about to cancel my HBO subscription after the Game of Thrones final season, I discovered a few other worthy things to watch on this premium cable channel.

For those of you who have read one or more of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, HBO’s treatment of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend may be your small cup of espresso. The eight episode season, in Italian with English subtitles, depicts the friendship between Lila Cerullo and Lenu Greco, two young girls living in 1950s Naples. We get a snapshot of the entire Italian neighborhood including parents, children, teachers and business owners.
Rivalries between families, romantic attachments and even gender discrimination are seen through the eyes of Lenu as she manages her relationship with her brilliant but troubled friend, Lila, in this literate mini-series.

Even darker is the five episode series, Chernobyl which gives an account of the infamous 1986 nuclear reactor accident that occurred in the former Soviet Union. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson give stellar performances as some of the professionals who try to discover what happened and what actions to take to limit damage to the area and its inhabitants.

The Soviet Union itself is the “bad guy” as officials try to cover up details, sacrifice workers knowing that radiation will kill them and search for the least politically damaging ways to contain the catastrophe.
This is a real life cautionary story that hardly seems 33 years old and has much to say about the current treatment of our environment today.

I give a guarded recommendation for Barry, a very dark comedy vehicle for the singular talents of Bill Hader (8 seasons on SNL) and Henry Winkler (the Fonz on Happy Days). Hader plays Barry Berkman, a contract killer who discovers a love of acting when he is tasked with murdering one of the acting students. Winkler is acting guru, Gene Cousineau who takes Barry under his wing. Stephen Root as Monroe Fuches, Barry’s murder pimp is outstanding, as is Sarah Goldberg as Barry’s actress girlfriend. Anthony Carrigan, he of the bald head and no eyebrows is hilarious as a Chechen crime lord wanna-be.

My reservations in heartily recommending this program stem from the amount of violence seen in every episode. This is the Three Stooges with lots of guns and bloodshed. If that does not put you off, this may be your gallows humor show for the acting alone.

HBO is trying to keep us watching and for now, it just may be succeeding.

San Marzano Tomatoes and Terlato Pomodoro Sauce

How did it take me so long to discover what some chefs consider to be the best variety of plum tomato?
San Marzano tomatoes were originally grown near Naples, Italy in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius. Going back in history, these particular tomato seeds were purportedly a gift from the Viceroy of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples.

If the new world had not been discovered, there would be no tomatoes in Italian cuisine. Can you imagine? I found a bag of these small red, oblong beauties at Whole Foods.

While trying to find a tomato sauce for pasta at Mariano’s that did not contain sugar or any creepy additives, I selected Terlato Pomodoro Sauce for its excellent ingredients: vine-ripened San Marzano tomatoes, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, garlic and spices. When the check-out girl said the 24-ounce bottle was 12 dollars, I almost asked her to remove it from my purchases. Mind you, the regular grocery types were under 4 and 5 dollars. I was hungry and the thought of looking at more ingredient lists on other sauces impelled me to take the expensive product home.

Wow! When I first opened this “small batch” recipe, I couldn’t believe how fresh and flavorful it tasted. Yes, this tomato sauce is expensive, but it is definitely worth the price. It elevated my Italian meal way above the normal grocery store brand level. The Terlato Kitchen web site lists Arrabbiata and Vodka Sauces along with the Pomodoro. I just may need to purchase those as well as the Organic Dark Amber Maple Syrup. Grazie bene, John Terlato!

http://www.terlatokitchen.com

My Brilliant Friend – bestseller by Elena Ferrante

I had long been hearing about The Neopolitan Novels, a 4-part series by Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. After waiting several months, the library finally sent me book one in the quartet, My Brilliant Friend.

Let me say that this novel was worth the wait. Anne Goldstein has done an admirable job in translating Ferrante’s luminous prose. We are introduced to two girls who have grown up together on the outskirts of Naples, Lenu and Lila. Both have a thirst for knowledge and ambition to better their lives while in the midst of poverty, violence, ignorance and rigid gender distinctions.

Ferrante’s masterwork goes on the shelf with Norwegian classic Kristin Lavransdatter and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I just may have to break down and buy the next novel in the series which is high praise, in my book.

Montalbano and The Young Montalbano, Italian detective programs

I’m trying to learn more Italian right now and, short of visiting Italy, watching television shows “in italiano” seems to be the next best thing.

Inspector Montalbano is a beloved Italian detective tv series based on the best-selling books of Andrea Camilleri. The episodes began appearing on tv in 1999 and are slated to continue airing through at least 2017 or 2018. I have been watching old episodes on MHZ Choice. http://watch.mhzchoice.com

Salvo Montalbano, charmingly played by actor Luca Zingaretti, is the middle-aged Chief Inspector of Police in Vigata, a fictional town in Sicily. Supporting characters include Mimi Augello, his womanizing deputy, bumbling police officer Catarella, his stalwart assistant Fazio  and Pasquano, the dead pan local coroner.

As charming as the original series is, I have liked The Young Montalbano, the tv prequel even more. Michele Riondino plays Montalbano as a young man who has just been appointed police chief of Vigata. The episodes show the origins of his chilly relationship with his father, his first encounters with his co-workers, and how his job has negatively impacted his love life.
Both Montalbano and The Young Montalbano are highly entertaining with stunning cinematography and clever plots, but the prequel has a bit more heart. Six new episodes of The Young Montalbano will premiere on MHZ on May 17, 2016.

Eataly: now a much calmer dining experience

I wrote about Mario Batali’s Italian food emporium, Eataly here in Chicago when it first opened, but the crowds kept me from sampling any of the restaurants within the complex. I had to be satisfied with purchasing take-home foodstuffs.

Earlier this week, I dined there around 5 pm (pre-theater) on a Tuesday and was immediately seated in the Fish and Vegetable area (Il Pesce & Le Verdure).

I sampled a well-prepared salmon filet with mixed mushrooms and lentils in a mushroom brodo (broth to you and me), as well as Branzino, a whole oven-roasted sea bass with white beans, grilled escarole and salmoriglio sauce, a Southern Italian condiment made of lemon juice, olive oil minced garlic, chopped oregano and parsley plus salt and pepper. The sea bass came with fish fins and face but once I got past the skin and bones, the inside flesh was succulent and perfectly cooked.

Here’s hoping that enough people are frequenting Batali’s Cbicago homage to Italian cuisine to keep it open since it does provide excellent food, but not so many that one has to wait an eternità/eternity for a tavolo/table.
My original blog post on Eataly, April 2014:

http://www.elizabethdoylemusic.com/category/food/page/3/