Mamma Mia

Wednesday night. Dark and cold. How many people would be at Mamma Mia in Summertown on a school night? Not many I thought as we trundled along in the rain. After all it may be a neighbourhood trattoria beloved by families, but surely that’s more of a weekend thing?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. That’s just how we used it when the children were little, that indispensable family restaurant where you could take grandparents, toddlers and taciturn teenagers scowling over their carbonara without anyone batting an eyelid. It was a failsafe, go to, reliable, welcoming hub, where everyone loves the food and you don’t have to worry about making too much noise or enjoying yourself. All are welcome and the more the merrier.

The chefs hard at work

So of course it was heaving on this wet autumnal evening – everyone was having a good time, from couples to students, work colleagues, date nights and friends, there to dispense some much needed cheer and Italian food wherever needed.

How Jon Ellse has managed to keep the fair ship that is Mamma Mia (there are two one in Jericho, one in Summertown) sailing on such an even keel for so long is anyone’s guess, but if I had to put my money on it I’d say consistency, friendly service, familiarity, ambience and an enduringly popular menu.

Take our waiter Bartek – yes he’s Polish rather than hailing from Naples, but he’s been at Mamma Mia for 17 years! 17! And he’s still funny and helpful and friendly, despite the bustling atmosphere and no doubt the same staff shortages that everyone else in the country is experiencing. We got all our food in time, in the right order and with a smile.

The minestrone

And the menu and atmosphere are as charming as ever. It’s such a comfort blanket of an establishment. You know you’ll be greeted warmly, that little will have changed in the old fashioned brick-clad interior. Chance is you know what you’re having before you sit down, but still go through the rigmarole of being tempted by the specials and the scattering of new pizza and pasta dishes.

The BIG dilemma of course is always whether to go for pizza or pasta, but we were immediately distracted by the delicious starters both on the specials and the main menu.

In the end we settled for four starters between three of us (shh!) – crispy fried calamari with a lemon & caper mayonnaise (£7.75), the fried zucchini sticks with a fresh tomato & roast pepper dip (£6.45), the minestrone soup on the specials board, which, as everyone knows, when cooked properly, is impossible to beat, and the avocado and tomato bruschetta with an olive, caper and garlic tapenade topped with crushed walnuts, both priced £5.95.

The zucchini fritters

That minestrone haunts me still, so simple but so hard to do properly: it needs to be thin but hearty with a scattering of parmesan and Mamma Mia absolutely hit the nail on the head.

The courgette sticks were irresistible, judging by the fingers darting across the table to nab one and then dunk it in the rich sauce, hot, crispy, juicy, ‘Mamma Mia’ indeed.

The bruschetta was a meal in itself and the calamari is an absolute staple here.

Our minds had already moved onto the main event – for me something I haven’t had for years, thanks to the couple on the next door table ordering the Quattro Formaggi pizza which I then had to have too. It didn’t disappoint, neither was it apportioned into naff quarters, one for each cheese, but scattered generously around. Really good, with those crispy dough bubbles, the tomato sauce almost slipping off the base, you know?

The Quattro Formaggi pizza

Eventually I peered up for long enough to see my two friends devouring their mains with equal enthusiasm. The Funghi pizza – tarragon sautéed mushrooms -portobello, chestnut & button-with crumbled goats cheese & rocket £12.45 – now that’s attention to detail!

The pasta dish – Pollo E Funghi – linguine, smoked chicken, sauteed mushrooms, tarragon & white wine cream which my friend had as a starter because we were already so full (£7.25/ £12.45)

Torta Della Nonna

As if that wasn’t enough the Dolce Speciale board had caught my eye the moment I walked in. Come on, who could resist the Torta Della Nonna – an almond and custard tart served with vanilla ice cream and berry compote (£5.95)? Us neither – one portion three spoons, utter contentment – the sweet vanillery custard set against the tart fruit and crispy pastry.

The perfect finale to a lovely meal. So no, in hindsight I’m not remotely surprised it was full to the rafters. Mamma Mia knows what it’s at without any of the fuss, pomp and circumstance so often associated with going out. It is what it is, and does it brilliantly.