I've often complained that many of Oxford's restaurants muddle along at a level of comfortable mediocrity. Right now, however, I'm simply thankful that they're not all like Luna Caprese.
As we left, I felt that the friends I'd brought along were trying not to say 'I told you so', but I'd started out optimistic. I had quite liked the idea of a small independent Italian restaurant that has been in north Oxford since 1962 (and may not have been redecorated since: see above); I wasn't expecting culinary fireworks but I had hoped the establishment would have a certain retro charm.
For a short while it could have gone either way: after being seated we were brought white rolls and extremely dry and stale 'garlic bread', but that in itself might have been forgiveable. The (rather stereotypically Italian, I have to say) owner listed an interesting selection of specials, which included lots of seafood and pasta, although not being told the prices dissuaded most of us from ordering them. The rest of the menu is quite extensive, and many of the dishes can be combined as part of a three courses for £18.50 deal. Two of us had starters, and these were not bad: plump tiger prawns, and well-seasoned grilled sardines.
From then on things began to degenerate. Veal escalope in lemon sauce (£12.50) was eaten without negative or positive comment, but mushroom risotto (£8.50) was so stodgy and creamy as to be barely edible. Then three of us had chosen veal escalope alla Siciliana, with 'fresh aubergines, mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce' (£12.50). You can see what arrived in the photo above: aubergines that clearly hadn't been fresh for a while, industrial gloopy cheese and tasteless sauce, all topping an unpleasantly spongey piece of meat with what might have been a soggy breadcrumb coating. It was the kind of dish you get in a bad school canteen; it was not worth £12.50 (more like £2.50?). Alongside our main courses arrived an unannounced platter of cooked vegetables, of which tinned peas with bacon and slightly al dente broccoli stand out in my memory.
(no fingernail so far)It was after this that the situation became irrecoverable. My set menu entitled me to a dessert; one of my friends gallantly offered to order one too. Sadly my orange meringue pie was barely edible, too much tasteless meringue on top of an orange filling that had gone fizzy on top of a soggy, crumbly base. My friend's limoncello cheesecake was slightly better - until he found a fingernail in it. We got what was more an expression of disbelief than an apology from the waiter, who was good enough to take the cheesecake off the bill.
I suspect the fingernail story will be retold for some time, but this is possibly the only good thing that will come of our visit to Luna Caprese. Mediocre food (with some stand-out awful dishes), a few practices that bordered on the sharp (listing specials without giving their prices, and charging customers for unrequested bread, although we didn't pay for the vegetables), and foreign bodies in the dessert: I won't be giving this place a second chance.
4 North Parade