This autumn saw the inauguration of the In Oxford Magazine Restaurant Awards. A welcome addition to the Oxfordshire food calendar, the ceremony acknowledged excellence in restaurants in a number of different categories. While The Feathered Nest near Chipping Norton claimed the overall prize, Summertown’s Italian restaurant ‘Cibo’ took home the crown in the ‘Rest of the World’ category. Encouraged by its recent plaudits, I went along to Cibo for dinner.
In my experience, having been fortunate enough to have sampled the real thing, away from the shores of the Mediterranean peninsula itself Italian food often disappoints. The fireworks one can experience from a pizza in Rome or a plate of pasta in Bologna somehow seem non-transferable to other contexts and locations. To my dismay, even the 500 grams of Parma ham that I had smuggled home from Tuscany this summer tasted duller on my return. So why is it so hard to recreate these dishes to the same standard over here? Italian food is a sensory experience. Taste is just a part of the overall package. The smells, sights and sounds that accompany a meal in Italy all play a part in elevating it to a special level. Furthemore, the Italians’ cemented place in the global culinary hall of fame is down to one thing more than any other – the quality of their ingredients. What springs from the soil is nurtured with such love that by the time it reaches the table, it is often fantastic. In England, we have a different climate, and while we also yield certain produce to a high level, agriculturally we prioritise different ingredients; often Italian restaurants in the UK cannot reproduce the food of their fathers to the same level due to the lack of high quality raw ingredients. For these reasons I have often given our local Italian eateries a relatively wide berth, but I was hopeful that Cibo would not confirm my reservations.
What was clear straightaway in Cibo was that there is great deal of effort going into giving the customer an authentic experience. On sitting down at our table, we were greeted in Italian ‘Ciao ragazzi!’– hello my friends! The interior was definitely Italian, shining and elegant. The song of that distinctive, melodic foreign tongue emanating from the open kitchen also confirmed that the chefs were also, you’ve guessed it, Italian. I was pleased to see the menu declare that the pasta used in the restaurant is homemade, while the wine list offers a number of good Italian wines. I went for a full-bodied Primitivo to accompany my first course of spinach and ricotta tortelloni, dressed with a classic tomato sauce. The pasta was perfectly cooked, retaining a little bite, and while the spinach was far more prominent in the filling than the slightly diminutive ricotta, alongside a refined sauce it was a decent starter. My partner’s fettuccine with meatballs was also tasty. The mains were delicious. Pollo alla Milanese – a flattened breast of chicken, covered in a herb and parmesan breadcrumb crust, served with buttery roast potatoes, and Tagliata al Balsamico, definitely the star of the evening – tender slices of fillet steak with shards of parmesan, rocket and balsamic vinegar. The well-marbled beef indicated to me that Cibo is not in the business of cutting corners when it comes to ingredients, I could feel myself being won over. Despite feeling extremely well-fed, roasted figs, pistachio crumble and vanilla ice cream looked too good to turn down on the dessert specials menu, and it finished off my meal very nicely.
So, is Cibo just another poor imitation? Not at all. While I cannot claim to have experienced the aforementioned fireworks, it was a pretty good meal. The menu offers a selection of some of Italy’s finest dishes, and the chefs carry them off well. Moreover, I enjoyed the atmosphere – the place has a certain romance to it, perfect for the amorous couple.
This article appeared in the Oxford Journal on October 27, 2011.