I think, on balance, it was the “sideways lasagne” that marked the decisive tipping point. That was the moment at which dinner at Ave Mario in Covent Garden — the Big Mamma group’s gargantuan new Florentine funhouse — lurched fully from something a little challenging almost into the realm of performance art.
True, there had already been the flap of some red flags (under-seasoned antipasti, a giant, mulchy salad lent a compost bin air by peeled ribbons of carrot) but this was different. This was scrolls of flabby pasta and overcooked, bone-dry mince, dumped in a sad heap and finished with a desultory, expressionist swipe of béchamel.
There was, if memory serves, disbelieving laughter as we had a few bites. But it was the dish that encapsulated a meal which was, throughout, touched by an almost mesmerising haplessness. And now, after a couple of separate visits, I feel I can regrettably confirm it. As the follow-up to Gloria and Circolo Popolare, Ave Mario may unquestionably be the biggest, most anticipated launch of London’s post-pandemic era — but it is also its first enormous disappointment.
And enormous feels like the right word to describe this place’s brain-scrambling vastness. Heralded by neon signs and hostesses in logoed F1-style jumpsuits, Ave Mario’s main dining area hits with all the subtlety of a Swarovski-encrusted fist: a glittering double catwalk of a room, decked out with zebra-striped walls, scarlet booths and a bar stacked high with the backlit bottles that have become a Big Mamma signature. Downstairs there is a clattery open kitchen and bathrooms that are bathed in neon, and rank — credit where it’s due — as one of the more masterfully conceived pieces of selfie-bait ever. There is undeniable spectacle. But the food that materialises on kitsch decorative plates can’t really live up to it.
In some cases — vitello tonnato made with oddly pappy sheafs of sliced veal, competently fried courgette flowers void of basic seasoning — these bum notes suggested a kitchen where no one had time to actually taste anything (the pitfall of Big Mamma’s high-volume approach). But in others the problems were more wholesale. Frutti di mare, rubbery little strips of crumbed cuttlefish, felt a touch Nonna’s Gone to Iceland. A needlessly massive, misshapen continent of veal Milanese had, as my mate Gareth had it, the tough, imagined consistency of “a deep-fried doormat”. And the steadily hyped giant ravioli alla carbonara — a mostly serviceable, bulbous saucer of pasta filled with béchamel, gushing egg yolk and crisped flecks of guanciale — could have done without the wincing richness of a literal pintful of melted butter. And that was on the occasion when it didn’t come edged in a circle of raw dough.
Were there any shining, salvageable positives amid the wreckage? Well, the caviar-daubed baby mozzarella pizza comes anointed with a light, profoundly flavourful puff of leopard-spotted crust. And, of course, there is the “tigramisu”: a highly seductive, lavishly thick rendition of the Italian classic that is scooped out of an animal-print dish at the table with enjoyable “say when” theatre. But I honestly don’t know if this will feel like enough redemption for those diners that find, after they have got that bathroom selfie, that it is all a little hollow and sloppy.
A needlessly massive continent of veal Milanese had the consistency, as my mate Gareth had it, of ‘a deep-fried doormat’
There are plenty of legitimately great restaurants where the food, though decent, isn’t really the point (Gloria and Circolo are perhaps two of them). But some of the amateurishness here — the sort of cooking that you have to actively ignore to have anything approaching a good time — can’t really be hand-waved.
Ave Mario is keenly run, lively and visually alluring but it smacks of sequel bloat and a brand getting slightly lost in the sauce of its own success. There is nothing wrong with a hospitality experience that seeks to offer a big, dumb dopamine hit. Inveterate silliness, especially now, is to be prized. But serving wastefully huge, half-hearted plates of food to plague-wearied Londoners desperate for a good time? Well, that only sounds like fun if you’re the one getting away with it.
15 Henrietta Street, WC2E 8QG; Meal for two plus drinks around £120. Open Monday and Tuesday from 5pm to 10.30pm, Wednesday to Friday from 12pm to 10.45pm and Saturday to Sunday from 10am to 10.30pm; bigmammagroup.com