I love theme parks, zebras, The Sopranos, huge creamy plates of pasta, and italo disco. So I was pretty much guaranteed to have a good time at Ave Mario, the perma-packed and endlessly-instagrammed restaurant which somehow swirls those distinct ingredients together into one bonkers whole.
It's the younger brother of West End super-trattorias Gloria and Circolo Popolare, which are run by canny French entrepreneurs Tigrane Seydoux and Victor Lugger. The birth of this new addition to the family last year was widely viewed as a bit of a beacon of post-lockdown hope. And it really does feel like an optimistic kind of place. Boisterous, even.
It's certainly not the place to go if you're feeling mentally or physically fragile. Giant black and white stripes rampage across the walls and ceiling, while waiters zip across the floor with the efficiency of Italian sports cars. The food is huge in every sense – portions, flavours, calorific load – and it comes piled high on novelty plates shaped like sunflowers of cabbages. ‘I did really really like it, I'm just really really full!’ quavered the delicate-looking lady at the table next to mine, imploring a waiter to remove her half-finished dish.
I came hungry and thank god for that. The smoked stracciatella was a rich, enticing initiation into the world of Ave Mario – a bowlful of creamy, cheesy intensity laced with an almost acrid note of smoke. Cacio e pepe croquettes were so big they collapsed into a creamy goo the second you bit into them, leaving little lasting impression beyond overwhelming, oozing richness.
Enjoyable as these warm-up acts were, I almost wished I'd saved my energies for the truffle mafaldine pasta, which was a gorgeous, well-thought-through dish of frilled fresh pasta topped with slices of fresh truffle and slick with mascarpone sauce. The pumpkin spice pizza was less balanced. Ave Mario's pizzas are like nothing else you'll find in London (let alone Italy): the crusts are thickly puffed up like a rubber ring, with a lake of molten cheese swimming in the centre. I couldn't find the pumpkin – it must have made a polite exit, sensing that this is the kind of place where vegetables are an embarrassing superfluity.
A sensible person would no doubt leave it there, offering a grateful prayer of thanks to the hardworking dairy cows of this world for their service. But the desserts called to me! Ave Mario's famous for its gigantic stracciatella ice cream cake, carved fresh at your table. I foolishly thought the advertised addition of puffed quinoa to the ‘Chocolate Al Porno’ meant it was a lighter option. How naive I was. Instead, a dense slick of almost airless chocolate mousse covered a warm chocolate fondant, offering the kind of unrelieved intensity that even a pre-menstrual Nigella Lawson might dismiss as a bit much. I found myself turning to the tiramisu for succour, dipping into a rich, billowy cloud of fluffy cream and just the lightest hint of booze-drenched sponge.
I can see why Ave Mario gets punters queueing out the door, even on a drizzly Wednesday. It's affordably lavish and undeniably fun. Even going for a wee felt like one big party – arches of rainbow neon tubing surrounded the black toilets, all watched over in big-haired bafflement by posters of Carmela Soprano. Refined? Nope. Enjoyable? 100% – a rollercoaster ride that'll send you reeling pleasantly into the night.
The vibe Exuberant Italian food served up in dramatic surroundings.
The food All the classics, with the richness dialled up a notch or three.
The drink Wine, beer and memorable cocktails: the house bellini comes topped with an enjoyably bitter cloud of lemon foam.
Time Out tip Although the mirror-ceilinged back room has its kinky charm, you want to sit in one of the red velvet booths by the entrance for maximum instagrammable sensuality.