Ask anyone who’s lived in Oxford for a while, and they all have fond memories of Mario’s on Cowley Road. Or Pizzeria Trattoria Mario to give it its full name. From first dates to friendly gatherings and family meals, most locals have been at least once. Whoever I talk to about the place says the same thing, it’s still just as good as it used to be.
In the restaurant industry, staying the same can be a deathwish. A restaurant that stands the test of time, with minimal changes, is a rare thing, especially on Cowley Road. Restaurants come and go almost as frequently as the student population on this East Oxford thoroughfare. Some places date badly, Mario’s does not. So what is it about this place that makes it last?
1. The Setting & Atmosphere
Don’t go for fancy silver service or sleek modern design, that’s just not the deal. It’s homely, cosy and traditional; like a family home from a couple of generations ago. Tuck yourself away within the gingham tablecloths and wooden panelling, while the open kitchen and bustling tables provide a symphony of sounds.
Italian football scarfs and stacks of pizza boxes decorate the trattoria’s counter, menus are laminated and the vibe is entirely rustic. Run with it. There’s a genuine buzz here, of the type many try to replicate, and I cannot imagine anyone leaving in a bad mood.
2. The Food
This is where the place really shines. And for one of my favourite reasons too – it under-sells and over-delivers. Rustic charm only gets you so far – if the food is shit, no one’s going to return. Mario’s, thankfully, dishes up some brilliant classic Italian flavours. Oozy lasagna? Tick. Handmade pizzas? Of course. Fresh pasta in all the classic sauces? Of course. We tried all of this, and some more.
Feeling I should save some room for the spaghetti alle vongole, which I was 100% going to order, I chose King Prawns cooked in white wine and garlic butter to start (£10.80), while the others went for a selection of ‘kind of’ prawn cocktail (sliced avocado topped with prawns in Marie Rose sauce (£8.60), crispy squid (£9.50), buffalo mozzarella with rocket and parma ham (£9.90), and bruschetta (£6).
My prawns exceeded expectations. Light crispy batter giving way to juicy prawns, with the tang of the white wine and vinaigrette from the salad dancing around my mouth. Ha, I win at starters.
Main courses came around fast, so fast they were clearing away plates before I’d finished my starter. I’d usually complain about that, but I’m a slow eater and kind of wasn’t annoyed enough.
Ordered for mains were: lasagne (£9.92), a ‘Pizza Mario’ – mozzarella, spicy sausage, artichoke, ham, olives and anchovies on a tomato base (£10.90), a spaghetti alle vongole – my favourite of clams in tomato sauce (£10.50), a spaghetti con gamberoni – king prawns in tomato sauce with garlic and rocket (£11.50), and a spaghetti alla puttanesca – garlic, anchovies, olives and capers in a hot chilli and tomato sauce (£9.90).
Portions are definitely not small, I almost managed to finish mine – I gave it my best shot but the carb coma hit. Flavour-wise though it was excellent. The tomato sauce on my pasta was the right balance of sweet and sharp, with ample clams and properly cooked pasta.
I’d love to tell you what the other dishes tasted like, but I genuinely didn’t glance up from mine. It was the same for everyone else, so consider that high praise.
3. The Service
Honestly? We were a bit tipsy by the time we got there. We’d started with cocktails at The Cowley Retreat, and the wine then began to flow, followed after by limoncello. The staff were efficient, patient, and absolutely on the ball. They’re not slow either, the staff managed a busy Saturday night service effectively, popping up when needed and zipping off to the next task.
A brilliant longstanding member of the Cowley Road restaurant community. If only they delivered!
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday 18:00 – 23:00, Sunday 18:00 – 22:30