Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono
I’ve enjoyed reading Natsume Ono’s quirky samurai manga House of Five Leaves on the Sigikki site so I was curious to see what her series about bespectacled men working in an Italian restaurant would be like. I ended up having a mixed reaction. I very much enjoyed the slice of life stories in the book, but the main plot line was disappointing. Years ago Nicoletta’s mother abandoned her to be raised by her grandparents when the man she was involved with announced that he’d never want to marry a woman with an existing child. Nicoletta is all grown up, and she’s traveled to Italy with the intention of confronting her mother and her husband Lorenzo. As Nicoletta notices the restaurant that Lorenzo runs she notices that all the workers are handsome older men who wear glasses.
Olga introduces Nicoletta around as the daughter of an “old friend” and promises to help her find an apartment if she doesn’t reveal her true identity. Nicoletta goes along with the plan, and she soon finds herself captivated by the restaurant and in particular the head waiter Claudio. She decides to apprentice herself to the cook of the restaurant. Where Ristorante Paradiso is at its best is capturing Nicoletta’s reactions as she gets to know the restaurant and the men who work there better. Her relationship with Olga gradually develops, as Olga is in the habit of dropping by her daughter’s apartment to offer love advice or drop off a new cooking pot.
The weakness of Ristorante Paradiso is in its central set-up. The mother daughter abandonment issue seems to exist as only as a way to get Nicoletta to the restaurant. It ends up getting resolved in a lackadaisical way. All the men in the restaurant seem to be devoted to Olga, happily giving in to her glasses fetish even if they don’t actually need corrective eyewear. And while Olga is referred to as beautiful, she’s not showcased as having the type of charm that I think would cause men to unhesitatingly drop everything to keep her happy. While I wasn’t thrilled with all of the plot elements, I did find Ono’s art very charming. She has a raw and unfinished style that seems refreshing after seeing too much slick and overworked manga. I especially like the way she draws her characters’ mouths as simple expressive lines, either turned down in sadness or twisted with a wry smile. I’m hoping that the upcoming sequel series Gente will focus more on fun times at the restaurant and less on the Nicoletta-Olga relationship. Even though Ristorante Paradiso was a little uneven, it still felt like a work from a promising creator, and I’ll probably give the first volume of Gente a try when it comes out too,