Gusto, the new Italian restaurant on Oxford High Street, is fascinating in so many ways. There is a huge focus on the quality of ingredients and cooking with some brilliantly crafted dishes on offer. All of this is inside the vast old Mitre pub and the scale of the site means that there is room for a cafe and bar area, a huge upstairs private dining room, and countless different dining spaces with their own unique styles. You can come here for a coffee and cannoli, brunch, a Sunday roast, or all of the Italian classics you know and love.
I have been lucky enough to visit a few of times over the last month or so, sampling a wide variety of the dishes on offer. The first trip was a lovely evening service in one of the dining rooms away from the kitchen floor. Here, we sampled the whole sea bream sharer. It comes in at £50 and is served on the bone (just how I like it) on a bed of potatoes, red onion, white chicory and samphire. In terms of a showstopper first experience, this really was superb and the theme of fish and seafood starring continued throughout my future visits. The bream itself is perfectly cooked and filleting it yourself tableside is thoroughly enjoyable!
The pan-fried sea bass was also a more than pleasant surprise. It is paired with some winter greens that match perfectly and a balsamic dressing that suggests a really well-thought-through dish — a cheese potato gratin also accompanies. The fish itself was perfectly cooked with a delightfully crispy skin. There is also salmon on offer and this one is a whole event in itself. The dish is brought tableside in a dome and the steam is released. The roast potatoes with it were a little disappointing and the salmon a touch overdone but again it was the sides that shone. There are green beans and butter beans with a salsa verde that combine superbly with the fish.
The variety of starters is predictably eclectic but I would certainly opt for the slow-cooked meatballs. They arrive in their cooking pan with a punchy tomato sauce and a focaccia crouton. A dash of Gran Moravia cheese comes on top but the star is definitely the tomato here. You can really tell that it is cooked slowly in house and it leaves you asking for more bread to go back dippining with. The balls themselves are succulent and flavourful with a vegan alternative surprisingly similar. Calamari are also on offer and the squid itself is clearly of high quality. As is so often the problem though the batter tended to dominate.
And then onto the pizzas! These really are the star of the show and the impressive pizza oven in the open kitchen dominates the main dining room. You can also book in for a full ‘Pizza Experience’ which involves making your own with the help of the star pizza chef (and eating them afterwards of course!). Quite amazingly, the sourdough starter that was created in the first Gusto restaurant is used across all the sites, guaranteeing consistency. That sourdough really does make a difference too and makes these stand out from many other conventional pizza bases. We tried both the Truffle Bianco and the Carnivoro. The first is a white base with mushrooms, mozzarella, rocket, and Gran Moravia cheese. The truffle paste adds an interesting twist but you can tell that it’s not genuine shavings — the benefit of the paste is that it bakes in with the cheeses and mushrooms to ensure it flavours every aspect of the dish. The Carnivoro is a meat-lovers dream with ragu, nduja, slow-cooked pork, pepperoni salsiccia, prosciutto ham, Fior Di Latte mozzarella, and caramelised onions. There is so much going on here to such an extent that getting a complete bite is almost impossible but when you do it is worth it! The ragu is certainly the most flavourful of all the sausages but is balanced out well by the onions, parma ham, and mozzarella.
In terms of sides we tried the Caesar salad, the house salad, and the fried courgettes. The Caesar salad was perhaps slightly overdressed but I was so happy to see it come with the anchovies that are often ignored that it mattered not. The house salad is my favourite though and brings a much-needed freshness to any of the spicier mains.
Now, ‘Dough Petals’ are quite the thing here at Gusto. You can get them as a savoury starter three ways; with garlic, with tomato and shallots, or with pork, fennel, mozzarella, and onions. We kept it simple with the garlic and weren’t disappointed – if you are a garlic lover then this is a must-have. The real brilliance of the ‘Dough Petals’ though is when they are used for dessert (bear with me I was highly sceptical too). The Biscoff and chocolate dough petal sharer is an extraordinary creation. An entire pizza base is filled with Biscoff and dark chocolate before being rolled, sliced and folded. It is then baked in the pizza oven and served on a base of berries and topped with vanilla ice cream. This might seem like overindulgence and a serious sugar overload but the vanilla, mint, and berries somehow manage to balance the sweetness to create my favourite thing on offer here. This can easily be shared by more than two and is the dream finish to an evening meal. There is a Tiramisu too and don’t get me wrong it was good but if you are staying for dessert then this really is the only option (I have been back for it three times already).
Drinks here are also an experience in themselves and the bar and cafe areas make this a great option for a pre-dinner drink. The smoky old-fashioned goes above and beyond with the presentation and the espresso martini comes with chocolate truffles for a complete dessert course. The cannoli on offer here too are freshly piped with a superbly flaky biscuit to differentiate themselves from their store-bought counterparts. What is more, you can enjoy one with a coffee for £5 during the day if you are looking for a work spot.
The last thing to reflect on at Gusto is the space itself and it really is extraordinary. The main dining room has an open kitchen and a great buzzing atmosphere all night. If you are looking for something more intimate then that is definitely on offer in the two rooms alongside it that each have their own aesthetic. Upstairs is a private dining room complete with its own kitchen and bar that is available for hire with a minimum spend but no extra fee. Downstairs is a maze of cellars and caverns that have potential for conversion and so much going forward. They had the chance to create something completely from scratch here and in a tiny space of time, the Gusto team here really have done the old Mitre justice.
It was also great to chat at length with Sales Manager Undine and Head Chef Mukrram. That podcast is below and definitely worth a listen — we go in-depth into the business and the food passions of both of them. The youth and genuine love for cooking are so evident in Mukkram and such a delight to see.
So, to sum it up, Gusto does it all. If you really want you can come here for a burger and chips but quite frankly you wouldn’t be doing it justice. Get a drink at the bar first and then head through to the main dining room to watch on as an authentic Italian dish is crafted in front of your eyes (and don’t forget those dough petals!).