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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Eating Italian in Oxford

For this entry, I've invited my sister to be a guest blogger and share her experiences in her recent travel to Oxford. Here are her views:

Having lived in Rome for a little more than seven years now and having lived la dolce vita for all those years, it was not my intention to try Italian food in England when I went to visit there the second time in February early this year. After all, I get my fill of authentic Italian cooking in Italy. The boyfriend is also a good cook and he never cooks anything else but Italian.

But when my sister learned that I was going not only to London, but to visit – for the first time – Oxford as well, she told me not to miss Jamie’s Italian. She had never gone to this restaurant since her last trip to the UK was some years back when the Jamie brand had not yet infiltrated the British scene, but she had heard about it. She wanted to know from me if it was worth the entire buzz it was getting. Jamie is of course Jamie Oliver, the well-known British chef and restaurateur and now a media personality because of his television shows and cookbooks. I’m no food blogger nor restaurant/food reviewer, but I promised to send her my thoughts about the place. So this is just a simple tourist’s account of her experience at Jamie’s Italian.

It was raining when I arrived in Oxford. After checking in at the hotel (Ethos Hotel, 59 Western Road), I thought I’d ask my hotel receptionist where would be a good place to dine even if I had already made up my mind before arriving where I would be going. The receptionist immediately and proudly, I might say, recommended Jamie’s Italian. I guess she has every reason to be proud because I learned that Jamie and his partners carefully chose locations that are based in university towns that lack mid-market restaurant options. The Oxford site was the first one that opened for this chain and I learned too that the arrival of the restaurant in this prestigious university town was much anticipated by the locals.

So when dinner time came and after touring a bit of Oxford, I walked to George Street, a busy high street filled with other trendy restaurants. First thing I noticed upon approaching were the sacks of rice displayed on the window sills with legs of prosciutto di San Daniele hanging on hooks (incidentally, I’ve always slightly preferred the San Daniele hams for its sweeter taste over the more famous Prosciutto di Parma). There is a no-bookings policy at Jamie’s Italian so walk-ins are always welcome. I was lucky that there was no long queue when I arrived. Normally this was par for the course, as I was told by the hotel receptionist.

The look inside the restaurant is a bit industrial, but chic. The general feeling is urban and modern. It has second and underground floors, but I didn’t get to explore them. I came to dinner quite early. It was only getting on 7.00pm, and although the place was not yet full there were already some people who were well into their dinner. I find this surprising. I guess I had gotten used to Italians eating at 8.00 or 8.30 for dinner…

I was quickly ushered to a table and handed a menu by a young staff. I took a look around the place and noticed the originality of serving plates of antipasti on cans of tomato sauces. I smile to myself and think that I am definitely in for something quite pleasantly different to what I am used to in Italy.

It was a cold evening so I chose Pappa al pomodoro, which is one of my favorite Tuscan “peasant” meals. Whenever I see this on a menu, my instinct is to order it. I am based in Rome and this dish is not usually seen in the Roman trattorie or ristoranti. It is only when I am in Florence or other Tuscan towns that I usually get to taste it. Pappa al pomodoro is tomato soup made of tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, broth and unsalted Tuscan bread. The bread makes it a heavy meal, but I still ordered another dish, something light: Beef carpaccio with rucola salad and parmesan cheese.

The soup was naturally brought first. It was in a huge bowl. I am again reminded of the difference between British and Italian servings. I guess the British is closer to an American serving. In Italy, this dish would be in a smaller bowl.

The mixture of the smell of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and basil leaves already whetted my appetite. I couldn’t wait to dig in. I finished the bowl in just a few minutes. Suffice to say that it was good. The beef carpaccio arrived shortly after that and I was glad I chose the meal since the thinness of the beef didn’t make me feel as if I had eaten too much after that hearty soup I wolfed down. The carpaccio was finished in a few minutes as well. I may have ordered only two dishes (I was eating dinner alone so there was no desire to order more and hopefully share them with someone!) but they were, as well as the dining experience, definitely better than what I had gotten used to in Italy. I am now a fan of Jamie Oliver. I can now see that his passion for Italy and anything else Italian, were translated well into his restaurant and his food.

The staff tried to entice me with ordering dessert and much as I was almost tempted to do so, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t succumb to the pressure. Now I wish I had at least tried it so I wouldn’t have to wonder now…oh well, however, I can see that there will be a next time…☺

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