Sometimes it's just nice to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures in life - a beautiful setting, good food, and good company. Today's review shows that this can be just as true for manga as it is for life itself.
RISTORANTE PARADISO (Risutorante Paradizo), by Natsume Ono. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2010.
Nicolletta is a young woman with a chip on her shoulder. Years ago her mother, Olga, abandoned her to marry a man without letting him know she was a divorcee, much less one with a child. Nicolletta is determined to confront her mother at long last, going so far as to travel to Rome. Unfortunately, the confrontation doesn't go quite as planned. Olga convinces others that Nicolletta is family friend, and in turn she encourages her wayward daughter to stay in Rome and enjoy the sights, particularly those found in the handsome older men that staff her husband's restaurant, Ristorante Paradiso. Over time Nicolletta's desire for confrontation is replaced more and more by her fondness for the city, her newfound interest in cooking, and her growing relationship with the head waiter Claudio.
On the surface, Ristorante Paradiso is a gentle slice-of-life series all about the pleasures of Italy: the sights, the sounds, and the food. Look closer, though, and you'll see that it's charming and casual exploration of its heroine, her relationships, and all the stories to be found within the restaurant.
All throughout the volume, I wanted Nicolletta to be MORE upset about her mother than she was. What her mother did to her was the ultimate in dick moves, and Nicolletta has every right to be angry and resentful of Olga. Still, I guess if Nicolletta had been on the rampage for the whole time, she wouldn't have been terribly interesting or sympathetic, no matter how righteous it might have been. Worst of all, it never really gets resolved. While the two do come to an understanding at the end, it's underwhelming. Even the characters admit to that much within the story. It's also kind of ridiculous to see how all their hang-ups could have been solved years ago with A SINGLE FREAKING CONVERSATION, and it makes both Nicolletta and Olga look a little dumb for not considering it.
It certainly is amusing to watch how Nicolletta and Olga's relationship evolves over the course of the book, step by awkward step. In spite of Nicolletta's issues, Olga does enjoy her daughter's company and encourages her to enjoy the restaurant and Rome in much the same manner she does. On the other hand, she still denies their true relationship in public out of pride (and possibly an unwillingness to admit her true age). Age is certainly something of a theme here, particularly relationships between younger women and older men. Not only do we have Olga and her paramour, but the restaurant itself draws in a younger female audience with its handsome older staff members, and Nicolletta herself has to come to terms with her own attraction to Claudio, who is not only much older than her but also carries a lot of baggage from his previous marriage.
The cast is fairly modest in size, but sadly anyone who isn't Nicolletta or Claudio kind of get the shaft when it comes to motivation and backstory. While Ono did eventually address this when she created the spinoff book Gente, it does make the focus on our main couple a bit claustrophobic. Still, all of the staff of the ristorante are fun and engaging, and Ono knows enough about Italian cuisine to make the process of cooking and wine selection engaging and even alluring. Nicolletta might have started hanging around the kitchens just so she could catch her mom unguarded, but she (and the reader by extension) finds herself lured into the process of making all this good food and enjoying the comfortable camaraderie of the staff, and bit by bit cooking becomes the focus of Nicolletta's life, not some vague desire for revenge.
Ristorante Paradiso can be a little frustrating at times, but that frustration doesn't stem from a lack of quality, but instead from the fact that our heroine and her plight are so sympathetic that it's hard not to empathize with her. It's a bit aimless at times, but it captures a lot of little moments, unspoken words, and a genuine love of good food and good company all within a single volume.
Ono's art style is unusual, to say the least. Her art is sparse and rough around the edges, and her character designs would probably been seen as bizarre by those used to more conventional manga art. Her characters are all weird, plain-looking, with froggy-looking faces and awkward, lanky frames. That being said, she gets a lot of subtlety out those weird faces and after a while you get used to her style. That same sparseness applies to the rest of the art, as Ono's backgrounds are kind of vague and she tends to draw lots of tall, simply arranged panels. Ono's style may be idiosyncratic, but it's understated and elegant in its own right.
Ristorante Paradiso is an interesting and underrated manga. It's the kind of slice-of-life story that will appeal more to adults than teens, but anyone who can appreciate unusual manga styles and quiet, understated stories of love and family could get a lot of enjoyment out of this book.
This series is published by Viz. It is currently in print and available in e-book form through Viz.com.