The new Oxford location of upmarket Italian chain Gusto is located on High St; in the vast 15th-century building that pre-pandemic housed the Mitre pub. Stepping inside, the aesthetic has undergone a full transformation. Gone is the cosy carpeting, wood accents and reddish-gold undertones. Now the walls are matte and dark blue, the salt and pepper shakers gleam rose gold, and the delicate silver lighting fixtures shine with soft, white light.
Greenery is a focal point: several types of (artificial) houseplants line the window sills along the room. The vibe is fresh, sophisticated and discreet: even the calorie counts on the menus, now mandatory, are tucked away behind a QR code.
Right out of the gate, Gusto dazzles with choice: there’s separate categories for bread and nibbles, starters and sharers, and sides. There’s both a wine list, and a cocktail menu, and, later, a separate dessert menu. The wording is questionable at times, veering between pretentious (‘served on a watermelon tartare’) and patronising (‘Italian gelato ice cream’)
The starters prices tend to hover around the £10 mark, with Burrata at £9.95, but also go above it, with Gusto’s recommended dish, the Pan Seared King Scallops, costing £14.50. A steep price tag for three small discs, but there’s an implication that the flavour payoff will be worth it.
Wanting to get the most value for our money, my friend and I decided to split one of the ‘nibbles’ instead: Bruschetta, for £5.99. An Italian classic, Bruschetta is grilled bread usually topped with olive oil, garlic, salt, and a small mountain of basil and diced tomatoes. Balsamic vinegar, parmesan and diced red onion are also common additions (at least in England). It makes a great appetizer because while not super filling, it is vividly flavourful. In theory, anyway. Here in practice, the toasted bread had a brittle, crouton-crunch, and was lightly brushed with a swipe of olive oil and a rub of garlic. The tomatoes were well chosen, fresh and sweet, diced into tiny pieces the size of cheerios. The basil use was so minimal as to go unnoticed. The menu says the dish is ‘finished with olive oil’ but beyond the small amount on the bread beneath, the tomatoes are not dressed at all. The lack of oil meant the topping and the bread lacked cohesion as a single dish. The result was bland and more of an after-school snack than Italian immersion. Why offer everything under the sun on your menu, if you’re not able to give every dish the care it deserves?
But we pressed on! For our drinks, my friend went with a large glass of Pinot Grigio (£11.75) and I flipped to their non-alcoholic cocktails, and ordered one of their recommended options, The Crodino (£7). When my cocktail arrived, it was a small pre-bottled drink, like a diet coke, served alongside a glass and ice. Later, I discovered it's a popular Italian soft drink: you can purchase three for £4.50 from Sainsbury’s. It was delicious, but felt misrepresented.
This theme continued to our main course: wanting to try both a pizza and pasta dish we ordered a Scallop and Prawn Ravioli (£19.95) and the Carnivoro Pizza (£15.95) at the recommendations of the menu and our server, respectively. The median price for the mains was about £20, with budget, with pizzas and some pastas hovering around £15, and the steaks around £30.
The ravioli boasted ‘a rich lobster bisque, samphire and cherry tomatoes’ all surrounding five round pillows of seafood-stuffed pasta. The serving size was not especially generous: perhaps that’s to be expected with the ravioli itself, but the two hairlike strands of samphire were mere garnishes. The ladleful of rich, rust-coloured lobster bisque dousing the raviolis was a real highlight, sporting addictive depth and a deliciously layered flavour of the sea.
Unfortunately, none that can be said about the raviolis themselves, which sported little variation between the dough and the white paste within. As the filling was pureed rather than chopped, there wasn’t really any texture to them, and the filling felt chalky on the tongue. Neither of us could pick out scallop or prawn individually, they were simply ‘seafood flavour’. There was a lack of freshness, and I would not be surprised if they had been bought frozen.
Carnivoro was essentially a fancier Meat Feast, with not one, not two, but five varieties adorning it, or if you count the ingredients of the 3-meat ragu individually, seven. There was spicy italian sausage, slow-cooked pork, pepperoni, the aforementioned ragu, and, laid atop this mayhem, delicate pink sheets of prosciutto. As a lapsed vegan, I was excited for this. I love meat. I actively crave it. But here, the multitude of flavours worked like swirling a painter’s palette of colours together: eventually, all the colour just melts into a muddy brown.
That’s not to say it tasted bad, it didn’t. But aside from an inspired kick of fennel hinting at what could have been (who should I thank? The sausage? The ragu? We shall never know) it was just one generic savoury meat stew. Underneath, the cheese wasn’t especially generous, and the crust was entirely standard. By the end of the pizza, I was somehow both unsatisfied and yet didn’t want anymore.
Lastly for dessert, we ordered the £5 espresso and cannoli deal and chose the pistachio option. The pistachio was less a flavour than a garnish - the ends were dipped in the crushed nut. The Cannoli tasted of vanilla, and was perfectly pleasant, the filling had a sugary grain to it that reminded me of Betty Crocker buttercream.
As a restaurant, Gusto has a masterful understanding of its target audience. It’s a special occasion restaurant for working and middle class folks. It’s a sleek, safe bet for your date night, your parent’s birthday, your kid’s graduation. It’s on par with beloved neighbour, The Ivy, in terms of prices, but not creativity or flavour. It’s deliberately fancier, and therefore pricier than its fellow Italian chains Ask Italian and Bella Italia. As the saying goes, things are worth what you’ll pay for them.
I used to waitress full-time. I even used to be a waitress at another upmarket Italian chain restaurant. I know a well-run restaurant and a motivated team when I see one. And here’s the painful bit: I can say without a doubt that Gusto is well-managed and impeccably staffed. The problem is not with this branch. Across the board, the team were friendly and welcoming. The waitress who served us was speedy, attentive, and knowledgeable about the food, as well as comfortable recommending the best wine to pair with the pasta. The service really couldn’t have been better.
But ultimately, in a city where Gino’s Spaghetti House and Mama Mia Pizzeria both serve Italian food that bursts with freshness and flavour at a fraction of the price, there’s no justification for food to be expensive and unmemorable. If you decide to go, go with the knowledge that you’re paying for the speedy service and the smart ambience: the historic building, the crushed velvet highbacks on the chairs and the fine detailing on all those fake plants. Dine accordingly.