Paris’s Big Mamma restaurant group opened not one but two of London’s most widely adored restaurants in 2019, with Gloria in Shoreditch and Circolo Popolare in Fitzrovia. Their kitsch interiors, old-school Italian trattoria fare and sheer joyousness was exactly what we were crying out for. And that was before the pandemic. Now as their third and largest site, Ave Mario opens in Covent Garden, will it be amore?
Restaurateurs and arch-provocateurs Victor Lugger and Tigrane Seydoux, founders of Paris’s Big Mamma group, love a bit of toilet humour. Only they would think to put a fish eye mirror on the wall opposite the loo, so customers can sit and watch themselves ‘go’ framed by a rainbow of colourful neon lights. I have to laugh. What ever will they come up with next?
Ave Mario is their answer to the big question: how do you follow up Gloria and Circolo Popolare, two of the most extravagantly praised and outrageously accoutred London restaurants in recent years? With some 295 covers across three floors, two terraces totalling some 7,000 sq ft, Ave Mario is their most O.T.T site to date and that’s saying something. Where Gloria offered a Dolce & Gabbana-do-Capri fantasy and Circolo Popolare took us to a wisteria-hung, whitewashed Sicilian courtyard, Ave Mario imagines ‘an idyllic day in Florence’ which, in the Big Mamma universe, involves greeters in Fiorucci jumpsuits, baby pizzas topped with caviar, and enormo-cocktails the size of my head. A queue had formed outside the door when we arrived at 5pm for an early supper.
Of course, it looks magnificent. On the ground floor, carmine velvet booths pop against black and white stripes (a nod to Siena cathedral); in the basement (sexier, clubbier) Saarinen chairs and kitsch souvenir ceramics bounce off the mirrored ceiling; another area involves gingham tablecloths, terracotta tiles, and vintage travel posters. Like every other diner before me, I’m snapping away for my Stories even before I’ve taken my seat.
But we’re not here to take photographs; we’re here to eat. Ave Mario has a young chef, 23-year-old Andrea Zambrano in his first head chef role. He presents a few Big Mamma classics – ‘Il Gran Carpaccio’, ‘Il Tigramisù’ – but the rest, from the swanky caviar dishes, to the pneumatic pizzas, filled pasta, and the two-feet-tall ice cream cake, are all new. From the cocktail list, a spritzy peachy ‘Federico Bellini’ gets things off to a good start. I like its tart lemon foam and love its understated form; I’ll give the fruit-bedecked mega cocktails (‘Jumbo Mamma’, ‘Spritz on the Beach’ etc) a swerve this time.
The meal itself begins well with a generous jumble of anchovies, olives, curls of fried dough, and hunks of good Parmesan, then fresh langoustine ‘tacos’ made of fragile carta di musica bread. Simple and seductive, the sweet ripe melon pairs beautifully with the salty, oily caviar. They’re using Italian Baeri caviar from Venice; Big Mamma may not be serious about everything but they are serious about sourcing.
It’s a shame that the new dish I’m most excited about ‘Giant Ravioli alla Carbonara’ doesn’t quite land. The ravioli sound sensational with their crispy guanciale and runny yolks but the eggs in mine are set to the point of semi-solidity and the point of the dish is lost. Happily, the ‘XXL’ veal milanese for two that comes next, fried in more butter than I care to imagine, is delicious. Haute cuisine it may not be, but the portions are epic, the prices fair.
For dolci, everyone but everyone orders the ‘Giant Stracciatella Gelato’ (‘60cm of pure pleasure’). Heads turn as it’s carted from table-to-table – rubbernecking is a way of life at Ave Mario – and cameras roll as the waiter douses each wedge in caramel sauce from a ceramic wild boar head (don’t even ask). It’s all good silly fun, in service to what’s essentially an upgraded Viennetta at £9 a serving. It may not make sense but after the year we’ve had, it may be just what we need. Mamma mia, Big Mamma has done it again.
Ave Mario, 15 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 8QG