By Natsume Ono. Released in Japan by Ohta Shuppan, serialized in the magazine Manga Erotics F. Released in North America by Viz.
This is, as everyone knows, the year of Natsume Ono. Her slice-of-death story not simple came out in January, and later on we have House of Five Leaves (currently running in Ikki), and the sequel to this manga, Gente. And you never know, maybe someone will pick up her Morning Two titles as well. This particular volume is complete in one, and ran in the awkwardly titled Manga Erotics F magazine. (Despite that name, the magazine is no more adult than, say, the Big Comic titles.)
The premise is that a young Italian woman named Nicoletta has come to Rome to track down her wayward mother, who abandoned her family for another man. She finds her in a restaurant staffed by handsome older men in glasses, and arrives determined to 'blow her cover', so to speak. However, she quickly gets drawn in by the men of the restaurant, particularly the head waiter, Claudio.
A lot of this volume - indeed, almost all of it - is devoted to simple conversation, with Nicoletta talking to various people about their lives, her life, and food. As others have noted, it can be a weakness - a lot of the plot is simply explained to us, rather than having us see it unfold. There's a certain sense here, especially in the flashback chapter showing the owner and his half-brother, that Ono wants to expand her 'brief' and draw on the others' pasts, but is restrained by trying to keep it within six chapters. I suspect this is why she started the 3-volume Gente the following year in the same magazine.
The story here, though, is Nicoletta and her mother, and despite the flaws, I feel it works well. Nicoletta's clumsy, awkward emotions are clear here - she grows closer to her mother throughout the volume, and doesn't really like what that says about her - and her attraction to Claudio is well handled on both ends. I particularly liked the denouement at the mother's birthday party, cliched though it was. Nicoletta's whispered birthday gift - that she won't tell anyone her secret after all - is touching, and of course fills the mother with guilt, leading to the inevitable confession.
The manga takes place entirely in Italy, and there is a certain relaxed, romanza feeling to it. I enjoyed seeing the staff taking Nicoletta under their wing and teaching her about cooking, and you can indeed see her growing as a chef through the book. But the best character in the book may be the mother, Olga, who we are set up to dislike as a horrible mother and them slowly realize that that's only one part of her character - and a part that she can start to make up for, if she works at it. This is all conveyed through Ono's striking art. I find her art to be rather glum and depressing even when people are smiling - maybe it's the wide mouths - so seeing the characters come to a happy end makes it work better for me.
This is nothing at all like what's coming out in the Jump or Beat lines, and pretty much exactly what I want to see from Viz's Signature line. Manga I had no idea I wanted, but now suddenly want to see more of. Let's hope that Gente, due out in July, is just as good.