Though to all appearances it's a restaurant like many others, passing judgement on Mario's is akin to 'reviewing' Tom Tower or the view from the top of South Parks. This is because it's an embedded part of the Oxford landscape, an institution, and something we couldn't imagine being any other way. An Italian chef slides a freshly-thrown base into the oven behind the counter, you wander past framed photos of footballers/prints from The Godfather and dozens of other diners (it's never sparsely attended) to your table decked out in green or red, and could honestly stick a pin in the menu - it's a place you can depend on.
Depending on your hunger levels, there's a fine starters board, the ‘Italian Flag’ still flying high. We lightweights went straight to the mains, which comprise your calzones, your Quattro Stagionis, lasagnes, Gnocchi Vesuvios and more in between. This time mine was a Pizza Capricciosa (£9.80 - mains are generally hovering just under the £10 mark). Marios' version of the Capricciosa comes without olives and with boiled egg - at both of which I rejoice - is absolutely great, filling as you'd imagine, and passes the next-day test. It's a great combination - flavoursome baked ham, the satisfying mass of egg and mozzarella, its earthy veg mélange lifted by the mild piquancy of the artichoke. I can't recommend Mario's enough for pizzas, while they're hot (takeaway if you're in the vicinity of lovely Cowley Road). Like the bases, the menu is expansive compared to those of newcomers like Franco Manca, but does offer surprising value and a quality of crust that has to be scoffed to be believed.
I nabbed some of my accomplice's Aubergine alla Mario (£9.70) - its richness lives on in my memory. Succulent fried aubergine baked with hefty, chewy mozzarella, the warmth of basil and the sweetness of tomato salsa are served up in a piece of boat-shaped crockery you might expect from a favourite grandma. Fortunately, this grandma can COOK. Indeed, cast your eyes over a list of Marios' ingredients, and you may think "I could make that at home" - taste their results, and the thought is extinguished.
My garbled request for a wine recommendation wasn't wholly understood by our waitress, but we ended up with a lovely Primitivo I.G.T - sibling to the Zinfandel, which may mean more to you than it did to me - whose darkness (chocolate, tobacco) and slight tartness (raspberry) is just what I want to cut through the rich textures of fine Italian home cooking. Those bracketed taste descriptions come courtesy of the menu. £5 per glass, or £17.50 a bottle, it's in the middle of the wine price range.
Mario's has a great selection of vegetarian dishes (e.g. see above), but only two vegan options (one pizza, one spaghetti). The menu promises you'll be catered for if you "ask for gluten free pasta". Accessibility hasn't been improved since our last review - contrary to which, we loved our desserts (mine, a Tartufo Nocciola, was a delightful hazelnut semifreddo bombe coated in praline and cheeky meringue; my accomplice's was its amaretto-laced sibling). The restaurant may have changed incrementally, but without relaunching, rebranding or conceding to trends, Mario's is close to full every night.