On occasion I'm asked which restaurants in Oxford I think are good places to take young families, but as someone with no children in my life I'm never sure what to say. So when I walked into Mamma Mia in Jericho one Friday night and saw several tables of families indulging in an end-of-the-week treat I thought I finally had an answer: surely a friendly Italian restaurant would be an ideal place to go with the bambini? But although the youngsters and their parents seemed to be enjoying themselves, I was disappointed.
What was most frustrating is that Mamma Mia isn't far away from being the unpretentious pizzeria we'd all like to have round the corner, but in almost every respect it falls short. It's clearly trying to look the part, with Italian memorabilia on the walls and so on, but the interior has a plasticky and slightly inauthentic feel. The waiting staff were not unfriendly but seemed more focused on tapping orders into their electronic notebooks than actually being welcoming: I didn't necessarily expect clichéd Italian exuberance but if I want someone to try and upsell me an extra salad, I'll go to Zizzi's.
To be fair, my brother's bruschetta (£4.55) was pretty good but this was the only dish about which we had no reservations, and bruschetta isn't exactly hard to get right. My starter was an insalata di bufala (£5.55), a ball of mozzarella with roasted peppers and rocket, but the cheese was a very poor specimen: tasteless, with a firm rather than gooey inside. The outside had a strange hard texture, as if it had been waiting for hours in the fridge.
Now, I might have been able to forgive the starters if the main courses had been any better. My pizza Firenze (£8.55), however, came on a bready, brittle base and lacked the tasty chewiness a good pizza has: I suspect it had been frozen. I couldn't fault the spinach and egg but the tomato and cheese topping was rather stingy, leaving a border of dry crust round the outside. If an Italian restaurant is skimping on basic pizza ingredients than that must be a bad sign, surely? My brother's lasagna (£9.25) was piping hot and generously sized, but lacked subtle seasoning and tasted like the sort of thing you'd get in a canteen where filling people up is more important than fine cooking.
We'd been intending to have pudding but by then neither of us fancied it, so we left after waiting slightly longer than felt acceptable to pay the bill.
I have to say that Mamma Mia seems very popular, not only with families but the large numbers who popped in to collect takeaways while we were there, but going by my experience I'm not sure why.
Mamma Mia Jericho (there's also a Summertown branch)
102 Walton Street OX2 6EB