On a dismal and rainy night in June, when you'd quite like to be sunning yourself in foreign climes or at least polishing off a Pimms in a beer garden, a bit of comfort food is in order. And when it comes to comfort, there's nothing like a big carbohydrate hit, Italian style.
Behind an unassuming front on Cowley Road, Mario's is a basic little restaurant where the focus is squarely on food, not frills. Checked paper table cloths and laminated menus set the scene, but don't be fooled: the pasta and pizza are pure quality.
Starters are surprisingly expensive, from a hefty £3.70 for a dish of olives* to £8.80 for a mixed antipasti plate, so we skipped ahead to the mains. With a wide variety of pizzas from £6.30 upwards, plenty of pasta choices, a few risottos and some meaty specials, Mario's has all the classics covered. Vegetarian dishes are awarded their own menu section, and there are even a few vegan options listed. I took refuge in a huge plate of penne sciue sciue (with aubergine, tomato, mozzarella and basil, £7.80), while C opted for a pizza Shanita (with mozzarella, spicy beef, peppers and onions, £9.30) and D chose a steak from the specials (£9.30). Within ten minutes of our food arriving, there were 3 empty plates on the table.
My pasta dish was simple but delicious, the addition of just the right amount of cheese contributing flavour without weighing it down. C's plateful of pizza was cooked in the wood-fired oven visible at the front of the restaurant, its base perfectly thin and its crust slightly fluffy. D's steak met his exacting, raised-in-Central-America criteria - the meat was excellent quality, tender, and cooked as requested. He even went so far as to pronounce the golden, slightly crispy chips some of the best he's tasted on English shores.
With efficient service and excellent quality home cooking, Mario's is a winner. It's not as cheap as I remember it (and some of the starters could perhaps do with a price reassessment), but for the quality and taste of the dishes on offer, it's more than worth it.
Mario's is at 103 Cowley Road, OX4 1HU. Take away available. Booking recommended at weekends. Tel: 01865 722955.
* Is it that I've just got back from Spain or is that a ridiculous price for olives?