You could describe walking into La Cucina as a temporally transportive experience away to a cosy, rustic, ocean-washed ‘ristorante,’ not out of place among the sandy cobbles and sun-dried walls of an Italian fishing village. Anyway, that is how one of my friends jokingly described the setting as we sat waiting for our meal, and while such words probably reveal more about English students than the restaurant itself, there are certainly glimmers of truth in her words.
Perhaps the first thing one notices about the restaurant is the wonderful sense of openness. Whether it is the dangling display of chillies and garlic that hang from the ceiling above the kitchen, or the carefully arranged bowls of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines spread out across the worktop, the visual frankness of the layout is immediately impressive. Seated next to an assortment of pasta packets, herb jars and innumerable wine bottles, the general impression was that ingredients could be picked out from the wall behind you and cooked up before your eyes. Indeed, the open-plan kitchen offers the delightful satisfaction of being able to both watch and smell your food being prepared, as well as the chance to chat to the chefs as they transform colourless malleable dough into mouth-wateringly delicious pizzas.
Coming to the food itself, it is not an exaggeration to say that I had one of the best pizzas I’ve eaten in a long time. Ordering the ‘Calzone pizza Vesuvio,’ I was intrigued by the presence of the words calzone and pizza in the same dish, and was curious to see whether it could live up to its volcanic name. Luckily my hopes were not misplaced, with the first slice into the calzone resulting in an eruption of creamy cheese, the sweetness of which was perfectly balanced by the fiery spices of the chilli and sausage within the bread. Other popular dishes were the ‘Pizza alle verdure,’ a tasty option for vegetarians, those with dairy intolerance, and fans of chopped aubergine, as well as the ‘Pizza de Frutti di Mare,’ for seafood loves. The only complaint that any of us could have related to our inability to finish the gigantic portion sizes. On top of this, the fact that all six of us at the table ordered some kind of pizza says something about the stand-out quality of their oven-baked speciality.
When it came to dessert, the profiteroles were absolutely delicious, and the chocolate sauce they were drizzled in added just enough liquor to delicately contrast with the rich plumpness of the chou à la crème. I was also told that the ‘Torta di ricotta’ was another stand out, with another complimentary balancing of flavours, this time Italian cheese cake with candied grapefruit. When the bill arrived, everyone was satisfied with the reasonable price, and was more than a little bloated as we began our walk back to college. Perhaps on the logistics side La Cucina could up their game, however: blunt knives were provided to cut through the thick pizza bases, and a rather rickety table shook whenever anyone cut into their meal too vigorously. Nevertheless, to the credit of the staff, the table-leg was eventually rectified by one waiter’s innovative use of some folded paper order slips. As well as this, we were constantly looked after by the staff, with little details, such as offering breadsticks at the start of the meal and consistently replacing our empty water jug, exemplifying a brilliant level of care and attention for their customers.
All in all, La Cucina offers a charming wealth of Mediterranean food into the rain-swept streets of Oxford, and while they can’t do anything to change our city’s weather, they can offer a brilliant taste of the Italian coast.