After two of my foodie friends revealed they'd both been impressed by La Cucina, my expectations were pretty high. And the pressure was on: after meeting fellow writers Katy and Krista on the Travel Belles trip to Italy in September, I decided an Italian restaurant was the ideal venue for our recent Oxford get-together. If Oxford's offerings couldn't compare to the feast we had over several days in Vogogna, my neck would be on the line.
Stepping inside, I was reassured to see that the restaurant was already reasonably busy despite it being early on a Wednesday evening. The interior is smart with a few rustic touches: varnished wooden tables with a few decorative items such as copper pans brightening up the dining area, which extends beyond the bar into a larger room. We were greeted and seated by a friendly waitress, who talked us through the numerous specials.
The main menu reads like a list of Italian home-cooking at its best. First up are plenty of tempting-sounding starters (such as funghi con scamorza; baked field mushrooms topped with smoked cheese and herby breadcrumbs, £5.95) and salads available in either starter or main course portions (£2.50 supplement). Pastas and pizzas (cooked in the wood-fired oven) are both reasonably priced: just £6.95 for the cheapest pasta dish and £5.95 for a margherita. It didn't sound like there would be any compromise on the ingredients, though, with options including pappardelle with a rich duck and red wine sauce and pizza topped with asparagus and a free-range egg all stimulating our appetites. In addition to these wheat-based mains, there are a number of risottos on offer, as well as a selection of meat and fish dishes. More unusually for Oxford, pizze bianche (white pizzas) also feature on La Cucina's menu. They may lack the usual tomato topping, but promise to pack a punch with toppings including goat's cheese, sundried tomatoes, spinach and red onion.
With so much choice, we mulled over the options for far too long (not that our waitress minded). Although coeliac Katy was pleased to note that gluten-free pasta is available at La Cucina (50p supplement), recalling one of the dishes we sampled in Vogogna, she opted for the risotto with taleggio and mushrooms, topped with rocket (£8.95). The huge portion of cheesy goodness was quite wet but still firm - an ideal risotto consistency.
|Taleggio and mushroom risotto|
Krista's crab and prawn salad with a citrus and chilli dressing (£9.45) was well-presented and flavoursome, with juicy tiger prawns giving it a quality touch. I was pleased to note the provision of a finger bowl - attention to detail clearly matters at La Cucina.
|Crab and prawn salad|
Although plenty of the vegetarian mains sounded appealing, I couldn't resist the artichoke ravioli with crab sauce and cherry tomatoes (£12.95) from the specials board. The distinctive flavour of the artichoke made a welcome change from the usual taste of spinach and ricotta or mushroom, with the delicate sauce adding to the dish rather than overpowering it. Although the pasta to sauce ratio was perfect, a couple of extra parcels wouldn't have gone amiss for an appetite like mine.
|Artichoke ravioli with crab sauce|
Too full to contemplate dessert, we lingered over our glasses of wine. Katy and Krista were happily full; my mission had been successful. Pondering the many assessments of La Cucina I had heard, I decided my own was far closer to the rave reviews than the negative reports. With a well-priced, varied menu (and interesting specials) combined with excellent service and a relaxed atmosphere, La Cucina is well worth a visit. And if you do go, make sure to pay a visit to their bathroom. You might learn something. And with an intriguing incentive like that, plus the promise of pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, you better get booking your table.
La Cucina is at 39-40 St Clement's, OX4 1AB. Tel: 01865 793811.