Whenever you write a review of Ristorante Paradiso, you always have to get one thing out of the way first: which one is your favorite gentleman? When I read the manga, Luciano was mine, because I fall pretty hard for the gruff types who despite their claims of disinterest can’t help but meddle. And while the anime cemented my love of Luciano, I have to say anime Teo is exactly the handsome aniki I’d fall in love with at Casetta dell’Orso. It helps that he’s a dessert chef, mouthy, and also rides a motorcycle. (Lorenzo is disqualified from my rankings — he’s too perfect and there’s no way to avoid being in love with him and horribly, horribly jealous of Olga.)
Ristorante Paradiso is primarily about Nicoletta, a twenty-one year old determined to exact revenge on her mother Olga, who left Nicoletta behind in order to marry Lorenzo, a restaurant owner in Rome. But when she arrives in Rome, Nicoletta falls in love with Claudio, a waiter at Lorenzo’s restaurant, and ends up staying there as a kitchen apprentice. Like most of Natsume Ono’s stories, it’s a mature slice-of-life production with a slow plot and an ensemble cast filled with enigmatic men and self-assured women. The manga is short at one volume but has a three-volume prequel-sequel entitled Gente: The People of Ristorante Paradiso. The anime mixes and matches the overall Nicoletta-and-Claudio plot of Ristorante Paradiso but detours heavily into the backstories of Gente. The end product is very, very much House of Five Leaves meets Antique Bakery. Why else do you think I pleaded with Melinda to let me do a Natsume Ono double punch? ;)
Ristorante Paradiso the anime is a feel-good jousei version of a dating game crossed with a butler café. It falls somewhere in between the beloved reverse harem romcoms like Ouran Host Club and the “counseling session of the week” trope of Bartender (which, incidentally, was also adapted into an anime). Like Antique Bakery, Ristorante Paradiso has its moments of drama — some might even argue, melodrama — but it’s one of those series that ultimately boils down to its playful sampling of human life. It’s bursting with little stories about romance, family, growing up, and, well, more romance. There’s a particularly memorable side story about a woman whose husband keeps cheating on her. The dell’Orso staff, especially Gigi and Vito, get involved, and the episode caps off with a very serious, but touching, lesson about marriage and coincidence that even O’Henry would have been proud of. Episode eight and nine owe more to Giuseppe Tornatore than Iron Chef, and episode four, which chronicles the founding of dell’Orso, could be a movie all by itself.
All the characters, especially the gentlemen, get a boost from being animated and paired with a voice actor. Gigi and Lorenzo as twenty-somethings are heartwrenchingly adorable when animated, and Claudio as a young and awkward server trying to find off the amorous intentions of a rich patron will make you swoon. Of special note for me are the relatively unknown Mitsutaka Tachikawa as Luciano and Jin Yamanoi as Claudio. Listening to Yamanoi really makes you believe you’re in the presence of a saint, while Tachikawa’s Luciano is beyond endearing, especially when he growls.
The additional materials from Gente, on top of keeping the anime from having to stretch out one volume’s worth of material into eleven slow episodes, also gives more depth to Nicoletta and her relationship with Claudio. Nicoletta’s observation that love comes in different shapes makes more sense when you get to meet all the significant others of the dell’Orso staff. That they spend more time together and go through a lot more troubles together makes their ending in the anime far sweeter and more conclusive. An unexpected benefit of getting to know Luciano better in the anime was that Claudio, in the process, came into better focus. Their friendship and comparable statuses (Luciano as a widow and Claudio, a divorcee) meant Claudio comes off in the anime as more than just a nice guy. You struggle with him over his idealistic nature, sympathize with his inability to move past his ex-wife Gabrielle, and really, truly wish for his happiness. You feel like you understand just what it is that Nicoletta sees in him.
David Production is a smaller, newer studio compared to Madhouse, the studio responsible for Ono’s other anime adaptation House of Five Leaves. The style in Ristorante Paradiso is less obviously Ono’s this time around, but David Production still did an excellent job translating Ono’s art style. The glimpses of food in the series are mouthwatering, and the shots of the staff’s favorite enoteca, with shelves and shelves of wine bottles, make me want to follow Nicoletta’s journey and spend an extended vacation in Rome. There’s some awkward use of CG as well as a laughable moment in episode six, where if you pause the video in Olga’s office, you can see that the certificate behind her is issued to “Bob Fields”, Cambridge, and qualifies the recipient to teach English to adults. Other than that, the animation is top notch. Episode seven introduces Luciano’s daughter Margherita who is almost indistinguishable from Nicoletta, but that, I think, is more the fault of Ono herself and not the studio’s.
For fans of the manga who were frustrated with the slowness of Ristorante Paradiso‘s first few chapters, but liked Gente‘s character development, the anime is the best of both worlds. (It’s just a terrible shame that Crunchyroll took down their videos.) For those of you who have yet to read the manga, while some have complained that the anime’s flashbacks were too confusing, I would recommend watching the anime over reading the manga. The meshing of Gente with Ristorante Paradiso makes for a fuller, more fleshed out cast and also tempers the ending of Nicoletta’s storyline, which I found unsatisfactorily abrupt when reading the manga. It’s far from realistic, the initial conflict between Olga and Nicoletta is still solved too easily, and very few of the staff’s backstories cover truly original ground. But if you like food, are a people-watcher, or simply enjoy a little romanzo in your life, Ristorante Paradiso welcomes you to Casetta dell’Orso.