The waiter plonks down two tins of Italian San Marzano tomatoes on my table. I was expecting a certain rustic quality to the first of Jamie Oliver's casual Italian high-street restaurants, but I didn't anticipate having to open my own tomatoes.
In fact, they are there to support a recycled wooden plank of antipasto (£6.50) that includes mortadella, air-dried bresaola and fragrant San Daniele prosciutto from the family-owned Levoni company of northern Italy. And there you have all you need to know about Jamie's Italian – cheeky, practical, good-natured, unpretentious and quality-driven.
A mixed Oxford crowd packs out the former George Street pub by 6.30pm, clearly here to have fun as well as dinner. In the front window, a young chef tends an industrial pasta machine. There's a buzzy bar, an open bakery counter and a salumi station with can-can legs of prosciutto dancing above. Down the spiral stairs in the basement, a stainless-steel kitchen spreads its hissy, steamy warmth and light over more dining-rooms with messily graffitied walls.
The only real Italian in Jamie's Italian is there too: the blue-aproned Gennaro Contaldo, Jamie's best mate and mentor, and chef/owner of London's Passione. Together with executive chef Jules Hunt and MD Simon Blagden, Contaldo will bed down each Jamie's Italian as it opens. He's a whirling dervish of Italianisms; kissing babies, barking orders, giving away crunchy polenta chips. Savvy young waiters weave around him, each other, small children and old ladies as if born to large families.
The bar struggles to keep up, but food is flying out of the kitchen. The mainly grills/ pasta/salad menu owes more to Carluccio's than Strada or Pizza Express, but it's all very Jamie. There are translations straight from the Italian into Oliverish, such as My Rustic Lasagne, Good Old Grilled Steak, and Turbo! Penne Arrabiatta (sic), and dumbing-down has reduced Sardinian carta di musica to Snappy Music Bread, scottadita to Lamb Chops Scorched Fingers, and la pastiera to Gennaro's Amalfi Orange Tart.
A basket of good, varied breads (£3.25) needs to be ordered separately, while bruschetta (£5) is deconstructed into thin, grilled sourdough bread and little pots of lemony ricotta, tomato salsa, rocket pesto and roasted pepper. Easier for the kitchen maybe, but it lacks that lively, immediate fusion of hot, cold, oily and crisp that makes things on toast successful.
There is a perky mix of drinkable, affordable Italians on the wine list, generously available by the glass, 500ml carafe and bottle. A silky, spicy 2006 Promessa Negroamaro red from Puglia is a steal at £4.60/£12.50/£16.90.
The biggest orders are for spaghetti bolognese and Jamie's Flash Steak, cooked under a hot brick. A starter-size spag bol (£5.50) is a decent serve of freshly made spaghetti, well fused with a good, un-tomatoey ragu of beef, pork and herbs. Like most Italians, I prefer the resilience of dried spaghetti, but it is still appealing. A char-grilled Catherine Wheel sausage is Carnevale's excellent lucanica, coiled like a Cumberland on a squishy bed of tomatoey, mushroomy, cheesy polenta (£9.50), and enough to feed a family of four.
This is high-carb, high-cal cooking, with no Italian comfort food left untouched. Hence the tiramisu (£4.75) – perfectly made and artfully presented, showing off rich, caffeine-laden, creamy, chocolatey stripes.
Jamie's Italian redesigns and rewrites the chain restaurant in his own image: messy, eager, exuberant, family-oriented. Focusing on university towns, the next four sites are to be in Bath in September, Kingston in November, with Brighton and Cambridge early next year. Like those tins of San Marzano tomatoes, it shows you can mass-produce the flavours of Italy for the happiness of the high street.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Jamie's Italian, 24-26 George Street, Oxford, tel: 01865 838 383. Lunch and dinner daily; no bookings. Around £70 for two, including wine and service
Read Terry Durack's new column at independent.co.uk/eat
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