Gino's is not found in one of Oxford's more glamorous locations: situated amid the glorious 80s brickwork of Gloucester Green, it affords an excellent view of the bus station. Still, the garish turquoise exterior hides a rather pleasant dining room with an impressive map of Italy on the the ceiling and in any case the restaurant is usually busy and offers a good value 'two courses [or, more precisely, one and a half] with a drink for £8' lunch deal. However, our meal didn't exactly outshine the surroundings.
To be fair, although the menu is quite extensive it doesn't display too many pretensions. There were some interesting sorts of pasta on the specials board but if you're used to ordering, say, linguine with clams or prawns you'll be limited to generic 'spaghetti alla pescatora' or with tuna and the selection of pizzas is not especially inspiring, unless you actually like the idea of a 'Mexicana' with pineapple and sweetcorn. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but while we had hoped for some delicious simple cooking what we got was rather uninspiring. We tried the lunch offer - for which you can choose any pasta or pizza dish - but I also ordered a portion of bruschetta (£5.50). It was perhaps a little too oily and the mozzarella and tomatoes on top were clearly not of deluxe quality, but the bread was properly crunchy and it was an acceptable way to begin.
Unfortunately my scialatielli [thick, slightly rough noodles] with chilli, crabmeat and cherry tomato sauce, one of the daily specials, were a bit disappointing. I enjoyed the pasta's chewy texture and the tomato sauce was clearly fresh, but the crabmeat, though perfectly edible, was tasteless (I suspect it came from a tin) and there was no evidence of the promised chilli. I can't fault the portion size but I struggled to finish this rather bland dish. The Bonhomme, my lunch companion, compared it to the sauce that comes with spaghetti hoops; I thought this a bit harsh, but even with parmesan and pepper the food lacked any substantial taste.
The Bonhomme, meanwhile, had spaghetti carbonara. This was better, with a rich eggy flavour and a good sprinkling of bacon chunks, and unlike the version I had at Cibo someone had remembered to season it, but it still felt more like competent home cooking than anything more impressive. As part of the lunch offer we also each had a side salad that was just a basic - albeit fresh - selection of greenery.
So our meal at Gino's wasn't especially memorable. It's not that I felt ripped off - £8 isn't bad for a reasonable amount of food, even if it made the additional bruschetta look expensive - and as I said I wasn't expecting anything too elaborate. Still, even these simple dishes were a bit lacklustre, and if the point of the lunch offer is to entice people back in the evening it hasn't worked in this case. This is a shame: the service was fine and despite the lunchtime rush we weren't hurried, and it would be great if I could recommend Gino's as a lovely little restaurant. However, when my beloved Mario's (and Oxford's other independent Italian establishments) are doing the same thing but better, I'm not sure I can.
Gino's Spaghetti House
94 Gloucester Green OX1 2BU