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Food

Review: Mamma Mia

Jack Rayner on an Oxford institution that has been dishing out cannelloni con spinaci and funghi all’aglio for longer than he’s been alive
"My renegade companion tore up the rule book and dived headfirst into the Mamma Mia special – pepperoni, smoked ham, artichokes, mushrooms, olives, peppers, onions and capers, finished off with a baked egg."

As an indisputable Oxford institution, family-owned business and favourite of students and Oxford locals all over the city, Mamma Mia possesses something of a force field against negative reviews; surely, only the most demanding and miserable of hacks could eat a meal at a humble family pizzeria of 35 years’ standing and claim that the staff have somehow got the formula wrong.


 

The place has been dishing out cannelloni con spinaci and funghi all’aglio for longer than I’ve been alive – who am I to waltz in and claim that, actually, the rigatoni molisani needs work, and they ought to sort it out?

By some means, and despite the looming reputation, I’ve managed never to eat at Mamma Mia before now – there is stiff competition for Italian restaurants in Oxford, and some others certainly market themselves in a more high-end fashion. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a street in Oxford without a premises advertising a wood-burning oven and a promise of “authentic”, “hand-stretched”, “stonebaked” or otherwise superlative cheese-and-tomato breads.

Perhaps that’s what makes Mamma Mia special – the unassuming décor, chequered tablecloths and friendly but placid waiting staff hark back to a time before trendy pubs started claiming on their overexcited and needy menus that their pizza is “blast cooked” to “lock flavour”, or other such meaningless buzzwords.

Having said that, it might also be the giardiniera – order the antipasto misto and marvel at the moreishness of these stunning Italian-style pickled vegetables, piled atop mixed salami, mozzarella, pecorino and artichoke hearts. While you’re at it, get a Peroni Gran Reserva, which is far better than the Peroni Nastro Azzuro that’s offered at Pizza Express, amongst countless others.

Now, I’ve always claimed that good pizza is more a feat of engineering than art: in all designs, structural integrity is paramount. Much like with sandwiches, burgers, and other forms of food where it’s tempting to simply throw 50 ingredients on it just because you can, it’s often better to limit yourself to just two or three well-chosen toppings, so as to truly enjoy each flavour without overcrowding the dough. There’s nothing worse than lifting a slice to your mouth only to watch your top half slide onto the plate.

Despite my insistence on adhering to this law, my renegade companion tore up the rule book and dived headfirst into the Mamma Mia special – pepperoni, smoked ham, artichokes, mushrooms, olives, peppers, onions and capers, finished off with a baked egg. Naturally I gave it a try, and it’s clear that 35 years’ experience goes a long way. I’d stop just short of saying “best pizza in Oxford”, but only just; it certainly beats any of the aforementioned trendy pubs hands-down.

Unable to decide on a pizza, I panic-ordered the rigatoni molisani: thick tubes of pasta with smoked salmon in a white wine, cream and dill sauce, which is nothing short of inspirational, albeit very, very rich – order a side salad to freshen up your tastebuds in between forkfuls of this excellent dish.

On my visit, the restaurant had tragically run out of tiramisu, but the chocolate orange bombe offered in its place certainly does the job: sharp, indulgent and smooth. Affogato and tartufo are also both available if you’re looking to stick to a rigidly Italian experience.

The pricing is on the higher end of the scale – £10.95 for the more heavily loaded pizzas and the same for my fish pasta – but you can still have a substantial evening meal for two with drinks and leave less than £40 lighter, which is still remarkably good. Three cheers for Mamma Mia – here’s to another 35 years.

- Jack Rayner

 

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