Located on a small street near the center of Rome, the Casetta dell'orso is a small yet popular restaurant staffed by a group of older, bespectacled gentlemen. Nicoletta is a twenty-one-year-old woman who has just arrived in Rome to meet with her estranged mother's husband, who owns the restaurant. She intends to inform him that not only was his wife married once before, but also that she is her daughter - a secret her mother desperately wants kept. When she arrives at the restaurant Nicoletta becomes enamoured with Claudio, one of the waiters, and begins to spend more time there. Despite the age gap, Nicoletta finds her feelings towards Claudio growing; and after making a promise to keep her mother's secret, Nicoletta begins working at the restaurant as an apprentice chef. Now she is trying her hardest to become a good cook, but can Nicoletta overcome the difference in age and win the quiet Claudio's heart?
Story: 6/10 Ristorante Paradiso follows Nicoletta, a young girl who has come to Rome in order to inform her mother’s new husband that his wife has a secret daughter. After meeting with her estranged parent at her step-father’s restaurant – the Casetta Dell’orso – Nicoletta not only decides to keep her mum’s secret for now, but she also falls for one of the waiters, an older gentleman named Claudio. As she tries to win his heart, Nicoletta begins working at the eatery and slowly begins to learn more about both her mother, and her co-workers. What I like most about Ristorante Paradiso is that it feels a little more grown up – not in terms of sexual content – because there isn’t any – but more the subject matter. Primarily, it’s a romance but there are no hot young bishies with their great hair and gleaming smiles in sight. Instead there are gentlemen – older, chivalrous, bespectacled gentlemen that comprise the restaurant’s staff. Additionally, the manga then places these attentive and experienced ‘objets de l’amour’ in the heart of Rome’s back streets to completely round off the romantic mood. This overall sense of maturity adds an extra dimension to the plot, as not only does it highlight Nicoletta’s youth and distinguishes her from the rest of the cast, but it also allows for all ages of women to relate to events – be they the same age as the protagonist and finding themselves relating to her while falling for the waiter’s charms themselves, or an older female finally getting some appropriate eye-candy to gawp at. While the narrative is interesting and the setting different from the norm, it feels very hurried. Sadly, that is most likely a product of the manga covering a mere six chapters, but even so, it all advances too quickly. Nicoletta arrives somewhat aimless, finds herself attracted to Claudio, tries it on, fails, and then whoosh, all of a sudden she decides she wants to work at the restaurant and gets a job. Ideally, this type of story needs a little time to ruminate before moving onto the next plot point in order to make it seem more realistic, which unfortunately is not a luxury that a one-volume manga can afford. Instead of racing through the main storyline, it would be nice to explore the bistro’s staff a bit more, thus allowing for a more believable progression in the central relationship. Art: 7/10 Any kind of anime or manga that ventures outside of the standard visual design automatically makes me sit up and pay attention. In this case, mangaka Natsume Ono adopts a mature and stylised method of drawing for Ristorante Paradiso, which works nicely in tandem with the plotline. This more continental approach with its sketchy lines creates some gorgeous imagery reminiscent of art you would expect to find hanging on the wall of a trendy café or provincial bistro. Sadly, this standard isn’t always consistent and at times the beautifully crafted illustrations morph into sloppy doodles that appear rushed, occasionally to the point where characters appear to have suffered a massive stroke. Characters: 5/10 The Casetta Dell’orso certainly houses a nice range of intriguing characters, but regrettably, the readers find out little about most of them. Claudio and Nicoletta are reasonably fleshed out, with a decent amount of the older gentleman’s past coming to light. Likewise a clear development in Nicoletta is visible throughout and though she starts off as something of a selfish brat, she grows into a more confident woman with an actual purpose in life. Ultimately, this transformation makes the young girl much more likeable as a protagonist, and encourages the reader to support her in her endeavours. As for the secondary cast members, with one exception, they remain complete enigmas. While it’s hinted that Luciano is actually kind beneath his gruff exterior, it isn’t explored, nor do we learn much, if anything, about Teo, Furio or Vito. Luckily, the Ristorante Paradiso saves itself by offering a small window into the life of the silent and mysterious Gigi. His history with Olga’s husband receives a good few pages, which helps flesh him out as a person. Without that, he’d simply be that strange, silent sommelier who eats a lot, or in other words, yet another slightly wacky personality in this offbeat restaurant. Overall: 5.9/10 As much as I would love to score this higher, given my love of the anime, when looking at Ristorante Paradiso as a separate entity, I can’t help but mark it down. The plot feels hurried, there’s little development in most of the characters, and the artwork can be inconsistent. However, despite these flaws, this manga is a still a worthwhile read and does contain some beautiful imagery. However, for a more well-rounded experience it’s probably better to combine it with it’s spin-off series, Gente ~ Ristorante no Hitobito ~ and really delve headfirst into the world of the Casetta Dell’orso.
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