Reviewby Rebecca Bundy,
Nicoletta travels to Rome to find her estranged mother Olga and tell Lorenzo, the man Olga abandoned Nicoletta to marry, that Olga lied to him about not having children. Olga convinces Nicoletta not to tell him by offering her a job at Casetta dell'Orso, the popular restaurant that Lorenzo owns where the entire staff is made up of older men who wear glasses, so that Nicoletta can become closer to the head waiter, Claudio. But Claudio's inability to let go of his ex-wife places Nicoletta in a strange love triangle that she must break before she'll ever have a chance with him.
The complicated process of falling in love is a popular one for a manga series to focus on, regardless of its genre. In fact, at least half (if not more) of the manga series available in the US are dedicated to this single topic. What you won't find as easily though are shoujo series that are meant for women who have grown up beyond the wide world of school boys to crush on. That's where Ristorante Paradiso comes in, with its 21-year-old heroine, a working-class environment, and a huge cast of unique adults. But outside of the age shift and Nicoletta's friend-based harem of older men, is Ristorante Paradiso really doing anything different from the waves of teen-centric shoujo already out there?
When it comes to Nicoletta herself, the answer is a resounding “No.” The shift from a shy, uncertain heroine who fumbles about when it comes to her crush to a woman who literally forces herself upon her crush to see if her feelings are true is definitely a welcomed one; Nicoletta thankfully spares readers the agony of wasting pages upon pages on internal monologue about whether she should declare her feelings or not and just comes right out and speaks her mind. The problem is that after she says her mind, she spends pages upon pages moping or talking with other characters about whether she should have done it or not, and then gets jealous or angry when people do what she wants them to do, but not in the way she wants them to do it. Confusing? Not when you imagine Nicoletta as a 15-year-old girl. She might be an adult in age, but not in attitude. For a series that's definitely aimed at a 20-30-something female crowd that likes their men older and mature, it would've been nice to have a female lead that is a little less selfish and a little more emotionally involved in the people around her.
The plot is also a little confusing and unreal, as there are never any consequences for what Nicoletta says or does. Every single character save for her mother is warm, supportive, thoughtful, and speaks to her (and each other) with a level of serenity that one would only see among monks; and as the series progresses, even Nicoletta and her mother rise above their issues with each other to join the zen-like state that everyone at Casetta Dell'Orso exists in. On the one hand, this is a really good thing if you're tired of all of the drama that exists not only in literature, but in life as well. On the other, it makes it hard to believe that this series shouldn't be shelved in the fantasy section. The regular use of Italian words helps ground the reader, and adds a very nice touch of realism for anyone who gets annoyed when characters from other nations all magically speak Japanese, but it's still difficult to relate to and become emotionally involved with characters who live in their own little perfect glass bubble.
That's not to say that the rest of the cast isn't interesting; in truth, the gentlemanly harem is easily worth the cover price of this novel. As perfect as they all may be, it's impossible to not smile when they smile, laugh when they give each other knowing looks when Luciano is being his usual grumpy self, or be moved by the stories they have to tell. None of the characters are particularly deep – some even border on cheesy (like Gigi knowing exactly which wine “is always the precise flavor you crave”) – but all of them are so innocent and honest that criticizing them for not being deeper is like criticizing a four-year-old for not being deeper. Plus their stories, especially the one about Lorenzo and Gigi's volatile family history, are the most interesting parts of the book.
Regardless of whose story is being told, the effect it has on the reader would be diminished if it weren't for the unusual art style Natsume Ono utilizes. It's far from 100% perfect, as sometimes the sketchy, light look completely ruins the mood when a simple smile, which is normally a thin line, looks more like a clown's smile with three or four lines all filled in next to each other, but otherwise the overly exaggerated expressions bring a lot of dynamic life to each and every emotion. The style also doesn't translate well on the front and back covers, where the lines are thick and awkward, but the only downfall to this is that it might scare off potential readers who don't check inside to see that the art is far more refined once it's in black and white.
With its focus on a grown-up setting and cast, a harem of sophisticated men (a role that's normally reserved to a single member of the genre) who oftentimes have wives, ex's, or (grand)children, and being open about your feelings instead of causing drama, this is the perfect pick for anyone who's tired of reading about shy high school girls and their cutesy little crushes. While the main female is still prone to wasting pages on her flighty feelings and the world she becomes a part of is a bit too perfect for its own good, Ristorante Paradiso is still one of those rare finds that's great for anyone who is tired of only having a kids menu to order from.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A-
+ An entertaining and interesting group of male characters makes this the perfect refuge for the older female reader.
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