Tag Archives: Italian

Carluccio’s

Carluccio’s (1-2 Little Clarendon Street, OX1 2HP) has recently reopened in Oxford – good news for those who love the chain and were disappointed when it shut down its original Castle Quarter location in 2010. It has taken a while for them to find a new place, but they are now very well-located on Little Clarendon Street, which has no shortage of eateries and foot traffic.

In our London days, Oxford Daddy and I frequently visited our local Carluccio’s, sometimes to eat and sometimes just to buy some of their fresh pasta and sauces to cook at home. There doesn’t seem to be any space in this new Oxford Carluccio’s for fresh food, deli, and bakery items to take away, which is a shame, but they still have some of their packaged items (mainly biscuits, savoury crackers, and Italian coffee) for sale.

Carluccio's interior

When the Baberoo, her Gran, and I tried out the new Carluccio’s for lunch recently, we arrived before noon, but the restaurant was already filling up quite quickly, a testament to its new location. Just in time, we grabbed one of the round tables near the window, which had some space for both the stroller and a high chair. With the help of one of the accommodating staff, I placed the Baberoo’s order right away (always a useful thing to be able to do if you have a little one who can’t stand long waiting times) and she was successfully entertained by a colouring/activity book and pencil crayons, as well as by her appetizer of grissini breadsticks, until her main course arrived. I ordered her the penne with tomato sauce (all children’s meals are £6.60 and include breadsticks, soft drink, and ice cream or fruit salad along with the main), which she enjoyed, all the more because she was eating with a fork – a newly-developed skill that makes eating out a lot less messy!

I ordered the spaghetti carbonara (£8.75), a dish I hadn’t eaten for ages. It had a generous amount of delicious smoky pancetta but the pasta was a little plain – as it should be with carbonara, but it made me remember that I prefer pasta with a sauce. My own fault! I’ll order differently next time.

Carluccio's spaghetti carbonara

The Baberoo is very much into ice cream right now, so she was thrilled when her tub of ‘cold’ came along. Unfortunately, by that time service had become much slower due to an influx of diners, and we had to cut the dessert short to rush off to the carpark to put some more money in the meter. It was a good thing that the ice cream came in a container we could take away (although eating it in the stroller wasn’t the easiest thing and I ‘had’ to finish it for her).

We had a pleasant time at Carluccio’s and I’d go there again. Here’s how it stacks up for baby- and toddler-friendliness according to my five criteria of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page):

Menu: With a menu this big, you’re bound to find something you can eat even if you are holding a squalling baby with one arm while you use your free hand to twirl some pasta. Certainly many of the pasta dishes will work, as well as many first courses or small plates. Main courses that are fish-based may also be OK to eat with one hand, while meat-based dishes require both hands.

Space: There’s not a huge amount of space between tables at this Carluccio’s – if you have a big stroller, your best bet is one of the round tables near the window. Otherwise you may have difficulty negotiating your way around the restaurant, especially with all the diners and staff. There is a step up to get through the front door but it’s pretty manageable.

Ambiance: Light and cheerful, with very friendly staff who enjoy talking to babies and toddlers. It’s a busy place and we had about four different people helping us over the course of our lunch, which is not always a good thing – sometimes requests (like our water) can be forgotten. It’s clear that the restaurant is a family-friendly place and Carluccio’s has spared no expense in making this known – not least with the colouring/activity book. It was no ordinary photocopied sheet; it was a multi-page, beautifully-produced ‘Italian Journal’, designed by the illustrator Marion Deuchars. It made me want to do all the activities myself!

Carluccio's activity book

Facilities: There’s a spacious baby-changing and disabled toilet on the ground floor, near the back of the restaurant. It’s clean and fresh, with good bright lighting and a well-placed disposal bin and sink.

Carluccio's baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding, choose a table with the wooden chairs without armrests, as those with armrests will be too cramped for you to hold a baby comfortably. There are a few tables with bench seating if you prefer. If your little one is eating solid foods, there’s a very thorough kids’ menu with all the classic Italian favourites in smaller portions.

In total, Carluccio’s rates an 8 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. If you can, go during a time when it’s not as busy and you’ll get prompt and helpful attention from the staff.

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Branca

This past Saturday we had a family outing downtown to do some shopping, take care of some errands, and most importantly, go out to eat. We found ourselves in Jericho at the magic hour of noon, when – on weekends – one is faced with the delightful conundrum of whether one will go for brunch or for lunch. We chose Branca (111 Walton Street, OX2 6AJ), which had both brunch and lunch menus available simultaneously between 12 and 1.

I was in the mood for French toast with maple syrup and smoked bacon (£4.95). The husband ordered the full breakfast (£7.45). We looked briefly at the kids’ menu but decided to order the half-size penne with tomato and Tuscan sausage sauce (£7.65) for the Baberoo, since she has really been enjoying sausage lately (usually filching it from my plate).

The penne arrived along with the full breakfast, but there was no sign of the French toast so I continued sipping my tea (China pai mu tan white, £2.40). The Baberoo started in on her pasta, but unfortunately it was woefully underdone to the point of crunchiness. We pulled out the ol’ backup snack bag for her and gave her some food from home, supplementing it with some of the full breakfast – which, according to my husband, was fine but not exceptional.

Branca pasta

My French toast seemed to have been forgotten, so we asked for it again and it arrived a few minutes later with apologies from the staff. The bacon was very good; the toast was also tasty and, fortunately, not too eggy (too eggy always ruins it for me) but I wanted more maple syrup to pour over it. What can I say? As a Canadian I believe that whenever maple syrup is part of a dish there ought to be a giant vat of it available for extra helpings.

Branca french toast with bacon

The dining experience at Branca was all right, although undercooked pasta shouldn’t be happening at an Italian restaurant. Now, how does Branca stack up against my five criteria (menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding) for baby-friendliness? (You can find out more about my ratings system on my About page.)

Menu: If you have only one hand available to eat while you hold a baby, the brunch menu has more options for you than the regular lunch menu. About half of the brunch menu is easy to eat with one hand; the lunch menu has a few good starters, salads, risotti, and pasta, but you’d be hard pressed to eat any of the meat mains using only one hand.

Space: Branca is easy to get into with a pushchair, but there’s a bit of a bottleneck near the front where the bar juts out. Depending on how many people are waiting in that area, it may be hard to get past into the main dining space. The tables at the back of the restaurant are further apart than the ones near the front, so they’re definitely your best bet if you have a stroller. The first time I came to Branca there were five of us NCT buddies, all with prams, and we fit at the back just fine, and during this visit there were plenty of parents with strollers and/or young children. There’s a garden terrace with loads of space that is open in both colder and warmer months, if you prefer to sit outside.

Branca interior

Ambiance: Light and airy, the place gives off an aura of being simultaneously cool and welcoming. There’s a tree growing at the back, and a lovely view of the garden terrace. The staff are friendly, and although we had to ask for a high chair (they are the nice Stokke Tripp Trapp ones) and a children’s menu, they were helpful with our requests (which makes me kick myself for not asking for more maple syrup).

Facilities: The disabled/baby-change toilet at Branca is at the back of the ground floor, and although there are regular toilets downstairs sometimes customers use this one because it’s more conveniently located, so it’s quite busy. It is a lovely bathroom with a window giving lots of natural light, and it smells fresh and clean. The pull-down table is close to the door, where there is a hook to hang your diaper bag. The room is on the small side. I left the stroller at the table, but if I’d brought it in with us we’d have been rather cramped.

Branca baby-changing facilities

Feeding: Although the Baberoo didn’t enjoy her pasta, Branca gets marks for having a children’s menu (mains range from £3.45 to £5.25) with a selection that has plenty of kid appeal. They also apparently have a baby menu, but although I asked for this I got the children’s one instead. If you were breastfeeding at Branca (which I have done in the past) you might find the chairs small and awkward; they have arms that curve right around so that if your baby is larger than infant-sized it might be hard to get into a comfortable position. There are a few cushy armchairs and sofas right at the front of the restaurant, but be warned: the front façade of the building is entirely glass so you’d be on display for passers-by to see. Bring a shawl or cover-up if you want to retain some privacy (nothing wrong with baring it all, though!).

Overall Branca gets a 7.5 out of 10 for baby-friendliness. From the number of babies and children in the place, parents already know that this is a nice and spacious restaurant that is baby- and kid-friendly.

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Jamie’s Italian

Caught in a downpour today, the Baberoo and I decided to stop somewhere for lunch. On a street full of restaurants, Jamie’s Italian (24-26 George Street, OX1 2AE) was the one that caught my fancy – I needed a real hearty dish of pasta to comfort me after being soaked.

I ordered the Sausage Pappardelle (small size, £6.50), a side of Famous Polenta Chips (£3.25) and a Noble Ice Tea (£3.50). The pappardelle was as rich as I’d hoped it would be (I was glad I’d ordered the small size!), and although I didn’t taste the fennel flavour in the sausage as much as I’d have liked I found it very satisfying. The polenta chips were melt-in-your-mouth good – so light and yet so creamy, with a crisp, crunchy crust. The iced tea was made with Earl Grey and the bergamot flavour was refreshing.

Pasta

So how did Jamie’s Italian do in terms of baby-friendliness? My ratings system (which you can read about in more detail on my About page) includes five criteria: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: If you need to hold a baby in one arm, there are several things on the menu (all the starters and about half the pastas) that you can eat with one hand, although most of the main courses (steak, chicken, etc) require both knife and fork.  I was pleased to find that my pappardelle was very easy to eat with one hand while holding the Baberoo, who had woken up from her nap just as my food arrived.

Space: There’s ample space to wheel a carriage through the restaurant, but I wouldn’t say it was suitable for groups with several prams; there’s not enough room for more than one carriage at a table. The entrance is difficult to manage since it’s on a bit of an incline, and there are also three steps to go into the main seating area of the restaurant. Staff were happy to help me with the carriage for both of these obstacles, though, and they did it without waking the baby. There was a 15-minute wait for a table (since everyone in Oxford had the same idea as me and ducked in somewhere for lunch as soon as the rain started), during which I had to stand because all the seating in the waiting area was high bar stools, which I didn’t want to sit on while minding the baby carriage. It would have been nice to have some standard chairs as well.

Table

Ambiance: Jamie’s Italian goes for the rustic touch, but there’s an inescapable commercial feel since it’s part of the Jamie Oliver empire. There are things to buy placed strategically around the restaurant, although they’re not right in your face. The staff are friendly and competent and seemed to enjoy working with each other, as attested by a high-five between two of them. Jamie’s is a family-friendly place (almost half the tables had children and the restaurant has colouring sheets to complete as you wait) so staff were all welcoming to children, and they have several Stokke high chairs for the smaller ones to use. The noise level is quite loud; we were seated near the dishwashing area so there was constant clanking of plates. I wouldn’t expect a baby to be able to sleep too long in the bustle of the restaurant.

Jamie's wares

Facilities: The main facilities at Jamie’s Italian are downstairs, but there’s a disabled and baby-changing toilet on the ground floor – although you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t ask; the door has an ‘exit only’ sign on it rather than a sign letting you know there are facilities, and the door itself is almost invisible since it’s part of a section with a mural that includes the door as part of the design. However, I asked and was pleased to find that it was right near my table. An excellent feature of this facility is the sliding door, which means you don’t have to wrestle with your carriage while trying to hold a door open. The room is also well-arranged so that the carriage fits in the space and there’s lots of room to stand and change your baby. It’s clean and somewhat nicer-looking than your standard baby-changing facility because of the nice tiles and the reproduction ‘Thomas Crapper’ cistern.

Changing table

Feeding: I thought perhaps that the metal chairs might be too uncomfortable for me to nurse the Baberoo, but actually they turned out to be fine; they’re wide enough and the seat is comfortable enough so that I didn’t feel like I was perched precariously, about to drop the baby. There are some tables with bench seating, too, if that works better for you. I was in a well-travelled area of the restaurant but only about half the people who passed me realized that I was breastfeeding; I got a couple of encouraging smiles and the staff weren’t fazed at all.

Jamie’s Italian does pretty well on my ratings scale; I give it a 7.75 out of 10.  Its family-friendly atmosphere extends to babies, and you and your baby carriage will be well-accommodated.

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Mamma Mia

The Baberoo and I went out for lunch today with her Gran and Great-Gran at the Summertown branch of Mamma Mia Pizzeria (8 South Parade, OX2 7JL; there’s also a branch in Jericho at 102 Walton Street, OX2 6EB). Family friends have been coming here for over 20 years and I’d heard the pizzas were among the best in Oxford.

I was looking forward to a real Italian stonebaked, thin-crust pizza, and that’s exactly what I got. My Stagioni pizza was generously topped and the smoked ham was particularly tasty. The crust had just the right amount of charring required to impart the best flavour, which is what I look for in an authentic pizza. For pies of this size I am amazed at the price: most pizzas on the menu are £6.95 (including a drink) as part of the Fixed Price Lunch, which runs Monday to Thursday and can also be applied to pasta or salad.  (Mains costing £9.55 and more are charged a £1 supplement during the lunch special. My Stagioni was one of those so my lunch was actually £7.95, but I thought that price was still pretty fabulous.)

Pizza

Pizza is so easy to get wrong that it’s lovely when someone gets it right. But how does Mamma Mia stack up against my five criteria for baby-friendliness? For my reviews I look at menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. Find out more about my ratings system on my About page.

Menu: Pizza and pasta aren’t the easiest things to eat one-handed while you’re holding a baby, but if you get someone else to slice your pizza for you it’s not that difficult. The pizza at Mamma Mia has a very thin crust, but the top is not soupy like some thin-crust pizzas so it still holds up if you want to eat it with one hand using a libretto fold, pinching the sides in to contain the toppings.  Some of the pastas would be fine to eat while holding a baby in one arm too.

Space: There’s not a huge amount of space between tables, but we managed to get one where I could put the carriage out of the way so I wasn’t obstructing the way for patrons or staff. I did rearrange it a few times because I felt it was perhaps taking up too much space, and if the restaurant had been full I would have had a hard time.  Still, the tables are not as close together as in some other places, and in the summer there’s outdoor seating in front which also looks like it has ample room for a baby carriage or two. I wouldn’t come with my NCT group, however, as the restaurant wouldn’t have room for so many carriages all at once.

Tables

Ambiance: This is a very family-friendly restaurant; many of the patrons were there with children and there were high chairs available for smaller tots. The staff are all very friendly towards babies as well, and talked to the Baberoo a few times (unfortunately, they didn’t get much of a response from her!). The exposed brick walls, checkered tablecloths and wine bottle displays give the place a homey, welcoming atmosphere.

Mirrors

Facilities: To my surprise there was no baby-changing facility, which is a shame since Mamma Mia is such a family-friendly place otherwise. If you live in the Summertown area then you’ll be fine if you can get home again quickly should the need arise, but if you’re visiting the area just for the pizza then you’ll have to have a backup plan for baby-changing.

Feeding: The chairs at Mamma Mia are the cafe-style wooden ones that don’t offer too much support; I decided not to try to feed the Baberoo because neither of us would have been very comfortable. If you can perch on a small chair to feed and your baby isn’t the fussy kind then you’ll be OK.

My final score for Mamma Mia is a 6.5 out of 10; it gets a lower score because of the lack of baby-changing facilities, but the pizzas are well worth going for.

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