one occasion you will have just about the most dreamily perfect forest mushroom ravioli, the next you will be served calamari that resemble knicker elastic
Name some things that Oxford lacks and you might, for instance, come up with a decent shopping centre that isn’t a ghastly and outdated monument to post-war town planning. Have you been to the Westgate Centre and its environs of late? It is genuinely difficult to think of a more unattractive place, both inside and out. It is full of people aimlessly shuffling from Poundland to Shoe Zone just because that’s all there is to do on a Saturday. Or any other day for that matter.
You might just as well suggest a town centre road system that isn’t a chaotic mess. Does anybody actually understand the reasoning behind the road layout at Frideswide Square by the railway station? Who does it actually benefit? Certainly neither road user nor pedestrian.
In fact, that vast swathe of Oxford city centre bookended by Park End Street at the railway station over to the west and Thames Street where it joins St. Aldates towards the south is singularly dismal: nothing but a metropolitan wasteland, at once empty yet full. Full of concrete and car parks, ring roads and blocks of flats; empty of promises. Everything is fifty shades of grey. Although these particular hues would be more akin to a quick feel up by the bins round the back of Netto.
And what of Queen Street? The main pedestrian thoroughfare is also found oddly wanting. Apart from a few mobile phone shops and, curiously, two branches of Prêt about 150 yards from each other, I doubt it has changed much since the 1970’s. This is in fact an accusation that can be levelled at all of central Oxford thanks to one man. The place has remained in a state of cryogenic stagnation since 1972 to be exact; this, the date when Douglas Murray’s Westgate Centre opened its doors to the world. All you ever seem to see from the city’s south western urban wilderness is the arse end of the Westgate. You, like me, no doubt consider this man to be singlehandedly responsible for ruining an entire town. And you, like me, should never forgive him for it.
I suppose all this makes Oxford sound about as welcoming as nearby Aylesbury or Swindon. And it would be were it not for several world class museums and that famous thing that has been there since 1096.
Universitas Oxoniensis. Ever since Henry II threw a strop and banned the newest intake of freshers from going on the lash to Paris (or something), and a bunch of students received a sound thrashing from some knuckle draggers down the pub then promptly ran off to open their own university up in the Fenlands (or whatever), the city has not really been ‘just a city’. Yes it still manages to have all the crappy municipal bits as well, like random violence and branches of Costa, but Oxford proper – the real, genuine, bona fide Oxford is its university campi. Most university cities are the other way around. Oxford is its university. Gown totally rules. Luckily, Murray didn’t get round to messing up the likes of the Radcliffe Camera or Tom Quad, or erecting a multi-storey in the gardens at Trinity.
Civic issues aside, another thing that Oxford lacks is a truly first-rate Italian restaurant. You know what I mean: that splendid, cosy, friendly, little neighbourhood joint that is intimate, has been there for aeons, has checked table cloths, does steaming bowls of pasta and a bloody lovely house red, while the moustachioed Maître D. who looks like Go Compare Man hovers with a giant pepper grinder.
Cibo! is in the more salubrious, leafier Summertown end of the city and might be a contender for the title of first-rate neighbourhood Italian. Might be…
You walk in and the interior is bright and spacious: contemporary with clean, straight lines. No cosy nooks and dim lights (or moustachioed Maître D, thank god). The neighbourhood aspect of Cibo! Is its main selling point. Open around the clock, you can drop by for coffee from 10am while food is served from 12 ‘til late. Local and passing trade is therefore always brisk. Booking therefore essential at weekends. The menu is home to the habitual staples of British-Italian high street gastronomy: a selection of appetisers, pastas and pizzas, along with seafood and grill dishes.
Right off the bat some calamari is too much like knicker elastic with a vaguely piscine aftertaste. Luckily their freshly made pasta is much better. A wild mushroom ravioli is a dream: impressively well made with a full-on deep and meaty sauce. The linguine vongole, that timeless staple of trattorias and Italian mummy’s boys the world over is another classic that is done admirably here, its pasta maintaining a pleasing al dente bite.
Main courses are so-so. Tagliata steak was decent, saltimbocca alla Romana was not, and not at all like the real thing, the classic version of the dish made from veal wrapped in Parma Ham, sage, then cooked in butter and Marsala wine. A decree passed down from the Roman gods of gastronomy maintains a Saltimbocca can only be a Saltimbocca if it contains both sage and prosciutto. This failed on both counts. Three in fact as it was made from pork. It was a dismal effort: its meat was little more than some bedraggled streaks of emaciated bacon, or perhaps the ears of a starved dog. Still, at least the Marsala sauce was good.
A blackboard special of seared tuna and rosemary potatoes arrived with half of it not actually on the plate. Between kitchen and table, either the chef or waiter mislaid the potatoes. When asked, the waiter breezily brushed the matter aside with a wave of the hands and offered bread instead. Business picked up with puddings. Homemade gelato nocciola (hazelnut ice cream) was delightful as was their affogato. Like so many of life’s foremost pleasures, this Italian classic is effortlessly simple. And you cannot get much more Italian than that.
Cibo! makes for a decent local Italian. It is as much café as it is restaurant and is there for student pizzas or Barollo-soaked blow out lunches. It can also be maddeningly inconsistent. Eh, that is a bit harsh. It is a local place and it is fine. Vivi e lascia vivere and all that. So Oxford remains on the lookout for that truly first-rate neighbourhood Italian then. Cibo! is probably the nearest thing to it.
4 South Parade
Tel: 01865 292321