Reviewby Casey Brienza, Aug 31st 2009
Episodes 1-11 Streaming
The twenty one year old Nicoletta has just arrived in Rome. Raised by her grandparents out in the country after the divorce of her parents back when she was a very young child, she barely knows her mother Olga. Nevertheless, she tracks her mother and her mother's new husband down at an intimate, hole in the wall restaurant called Casetta dell'Orso. The restaurant proves to be a bit odd, to say the least—it is staffed entirely by bespectacled, middle aged men! As it turns out, Nicoletta's mother wants to keep Nicoletta a secret from her second husband, and to placate the girl she helps her get a job in Casetta dell'Orso's kitchen. But of course, exquisite Italian cuisine isn't the only thing on Nicoletta's mind. She soon becomes infatuated with one of the restaurant's gentle waiters…
“Love comes in all shapes and sizes,” opines Nicoletta late in this attractively modest but affective anime series about the staff of a restaurant in Rome based upon a standalone manga volume of the same name by Natsume Ono. This straightforward sentence, even more simply constructed and compact in the original Japanese, is the true theme and raison d'entre of Ristorante Paradiso. The Roman setting? The quaint Italian restaurant? The foodie apprenticeship subplot? The profusion of bespectacled, middle aged men? All decoration.
Well, more or less. But at the very least, it's safe to say that the Casetta dell'Orso is the setting of this anime's slice of life drama, not another character unto itself. Indeed, it is the setting around which all of these delightful characters' lives revolve; Nicoletta's newfound employment in the restaurant's kitchen is only the beginning. Over the course of eleven well-conceived episodes, we learn about little bits about the various characters'—mainly their past losses and present loves. Each of the male characters gets at minimum one episode all to himself, dedicated to his peculiar brand of love. Luciano, for example, is a widower who reason for living has become high daughter and grandson. Nicoletta's love interest Claudio (his full name is the unlikely, not to mention risible “Santo Claudio Paradiso”), meanwhile, still has not gotten fully over his divorce. My favorite episode was probably the one devoted to the swarthy chef Teo, once bullied by his female boss and now temporarily turned bully himself when faced with his young female apprentice.
Teo's episode, actually, also connects to the anime's overarching plot. After all, it starts out as a coming of age story, and when Teo bullies Nicoletta, it intersects quite explicitly with her gradual professional development and burgeoning sense of selfhood. Obviously, apart from her sexual maturation, the other half of Nicoletta's coming of age involves purging her bitterness towards her mother's bad mothering. The love between mother and daughter is yet another type of love explored here. Not to spoil Ristorante Paradiso too directly, but suffice it to say that inasmuch as this show has any resolution whatsoever, it involves Nicoletta's relationship with her mother.
Ristorante Paradiso is exceedingly unusual in that, despite its foreign setting, there is absolutely no one of Japanese ethnicity—not the protagonist, not the supporting cast, not even a one-episode guest appearance. Even so, you may be excused for thinking that the purportedly Italian characters behave in a markedly un-Italian—shall we say decidedly anime-typical, Japanese?—sort of way. Thus, it is safe to expect plenty of feminine tittering (and oogling of the multitudes of handsome, middle-aged men), the occasional bow, and liberal doses of “Eeeeeehhhh~?!”…to name just a few anachronisms. Fortunately, these do not distract unduly from the series' Europhile atmosphere.
Actually, the Europhile atmosphere is one of the series' best assets. The mixture of stylized Mediterranean and Mid-Century Modern interior design melds seamlessly with the three-dimensional computer renderings of Rome's narrow, cobblestone streets. The character designs are also especially handsome, faithful to the spirit of Natsume Ono's big-eyed, wide-mouthed, yet lanky, improvisational art style. And happily, there is plenty of room for touches of whimsy. For example, the name of the restaurant translates as “Little House of the Bear”—cue the cute, but not cloying, teddy bear cameos. Even when the animation quality per se is no better than your average Japanese animated television series, the heady unity of design and warm yet understated palette will not leave you feeling bereft.
The soundtrack is pleasing as well. The light-handed opening and ending themes suit the series beautifully, and delicate strains of background music throughout evoke precisely the right register of Fantasy Italy. As for the voice acting, it is also solid throughout; of course, the indisputed Grand Master of the piece is Fumiko Orikasa (name three relatively recent anime series at random and she's probably been in at least one of them), who plays Nicoletta, but the large supporting cast playing the men are also quite good. Jin Yamanoi in particular does an exceptional job as the complicated and oft frustrated Claudio—he executes the role with precisely the right combination of honeyed and lukewarm tones.
Although it is perhaps a tad disappointing that an anime based upon a manga originally serialized in Manga Erotics F is not more, well, erotic, there is more than enough sensuality to please even the most discriminating of anime hedonists. Great Italian food and faithful love… what more could you ask for?
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A-
+ An affective--and effective--slice of life story. Great artistic design and execution.
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