Tanya Gold

More spectacle than food: Ave Mario reviewed

More spectacle than food: Ave Mario reviewed
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Ave Mario looks like Clown Town, a soft-play centre in Finchley with a ball pit so large you could drown in it and lie undiscovered for years. Apart from the crucifixes on the walls, of course, which are specific to Avo Maria. (I have yet to find a soft-play centre that looks like St Peter’s.)

We need joy now that Al ‘Boris’ Johnson, our human ball pit masquerading as someone who does not have narcissistic personality disorder, endures to fudge another day with his cabinet of ghouls and his stupid hair. I have always underestimated him as a hack: no more. Now I think he could edit the Daily Mail, and I have no higher praise for any hustler who ever learned to write his name than that.

So all I have for you this week – apart from suggesting you watch The Death of Stalin, which is not meaningful political activism, though it is funny – is to insist you go to Ave Mario because it looks like Clown Town and serves pizza as big as your face. Like all good restaurants, it tears you from reality and presents its own.

Ave Mario is in Covent Garden, so my first question is: how did it get here? How did it slip through the net? Usually, Covent Garden houses restaurants themed like sex workers (nonexistent joyful sex workers), flower maidens (Covent Garden is farmland in your head) or unhappy wives in cashmere shrouds eating salad leaves (the rest of it).

And yet here is a restaurant designed by children for children, and there are many more children to be pleased by it: at midday there is a queue outside waiting to be inspired by ‘an idyllic day in Florence, a « Church » version 2.0’. Let literary critics analyse that, for I cannot. Is it a new religion, that has stolen the bones of an old religion, and added a new element – passata?

Ave Mario is from the Big Mamma group, owners of Gloria in Shoreditch and Circolo Popolare in Fitzrovia. It is, like the Roman Church, visually eye-melting and glorious or night-marish depending on how many of your ancestors had stones thrown at them on Good Friday.

I struggle to break it down to constituent parts – I feel the same way about Caravaggio – but I can say there are curling blood-red leather booths; monochrome stripes on walls and ceilings; lamps like stars; a bar so high and wild it looks like a blessed purgatory; plates shaped like cabbage leaves; many crucifixes. The soundtrack is happy babble. Even the website copy is happy babble. The staff are ‘crazy’ or ‘completely crazy’, a cheese dish is named, ‘Oh Burrata, Olive you’, and bookings are ‘sexy’. Are they?

As in Clown Town, charming waiters treat you as if you are an imbecile ever in danger of toppling into a ball pit – and that is good service. Their strategy is to throw down ever bigger and more gaudy plates of food.

We eat saltimbocca alla Romana (essentially veal and mash), ravioli alla parmigiana (undeserving of parentheses, but OK), a perfect mozzarella, rocket and prosciutto pizza named Platinum Jubilee; a marvellous tiramisu; and giant stracciatella gelato hacked from a vast piece of ice cream shaped like a wedding cake, or three parmesan cheeses wobbling on each other. It’s more spectacle than food and I eat, happy as a child, drugged by crucifixes, by sugar, by (likely imported) tomatoes, until I wake up to the rest.

The cheaper and less qualified doctor will see you now
‘The cheaper and less qualified doctor will see you now.’

Ave Mario, 15 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8QG

Written byTanya Gold

Tanya Gold is The Spectator's restaurant critic.

Topics in this articleWine and Food