THE market for Italian food on the high street has become a little overcrowded of late, with inevitable results.

Recent announcements by Prezzo and Jamie’s Italian that they would be axing branches comes as no surprise in a world where, in Oxford alone, they are competing against the likes of Pizza Express, ASK Italian, Franco Manca and Buongiorno e Buonasera – which has already closed its Cowley Road offshoot Cotto e Mangiato. When you add in the likes of Pizza Pilgrims in the Westgate, things get very overheated indeed.

Standing clear of the fray – both metaphorically and geographically – is Carluccio’s.

Tucked away in rarefied Little Clarendon Street, its chilled-out location is a world apart from George Street and makes it more of a destination than a place to choose on the hoof.

Its stubborn commitment to authentic Italian cuisine at reasonable prices has also stood it in good stead and a loyal army of regular customers – particularly among north Oxford Italophiles.

So, I’m not really sure why I’d stayed away for so long. Perhaps it was the arrival of the shiny new Westgate, a shift away from large chains, or maybe it was a hunger for more exotic cuisines, but I just kid of forgot it was there.

On hearing the place had launched its new spring menu, I didn’t waste any time in heading back – and immediately wondered why I’d been away for so long.

The first thing that struck me was how friendly it was. Now, I know everywhere is friendly, on a superficial level at least, but this place was genuinely cheery, with chatty attentive staff unafraid to offer their own recommendations and favourites – which, in my book, is essential.

The restaurant has a bright and breezy shop/cafe feel afforded by the fancy imported boxes, tins, bottles and takeaway goodies on sale, which gives it a pleasing Italian flavour.

There’s also the unstuffy air of being able to come in alone for just a beer and a starter or a coffee and dessert – which I saw one solo student enjoying, while glued to her book.

Poring over the menu, chewing on plump pitted olives (£2.95), we decided to mix the new additions with old favourites.

My starter of cozze e fregola (£6.95) was so good it was a highlight of the meal. This new dish consists of soft juicy mussels tossed with fregola, a short toasted Sardinian durum wheat pasta, in a saffron sauce. The pasta was firm – a good bite but nicely yielding, and perfectly suited to the tender shellfish with their subtle flavour and gentle texture. The chef would have cringed had he seen the amount of black pepper I heaped on, but it was seriously good.

We also tried a predictable, but well judged, Insalata Caprese (£6.50) – a clean, uncomplicated dish of fresh Buffalo mozzarella, fat sliced tomatoes, basil, extra virgin olive oil and some black olive. So simple, but so healthy tasting – a testament to great ingredients.

I followed up with an old favourite – and a test of any chef of Italian food’s mettle – seafood linguine (£14.75). Carluccio’s faithful rendering of this sublime dish sees handfuls of prawns, mussels and clams tossed in a spicy sauce of tomato, chilli and crabmeat, along with with sweet baby plum tomatoes and fresh basil. With shellfish in the shell, it is fun and satisfying hands-on to eat. The combination of marine flavours is cut through by the sweet tomato and subtle chilli and given depth with a sprinkling of bottarga – finely flavoured (and very expensive) mullet roe. It’s a fabulous dish.

In the interests of trying something new, I also wolfed down fork fulls of delicious merluzzo e lenticchie (£15.75) – a large pan-fried cod filet smothered with salsa verde on a stew of mixed lentils, chunks of potato, celery, carrots and onion tossed with kale.

It tasted as healthy as it sounds – and was very tasty, a feat considering the potentially plain-flavoured ingredients, and I was pleased to find the delicate cod flavour coming through strong – not overpowered by that salsa verde.

It went well with a crisp La Luna Sauvignon Blanc, from the Veneto – with its sharp tang of just ripening green apples (great value at £18.95).

Almost beaten, there was just enough room for a lovely warm chocolate bread & butter pudding (£5.75) with ice cream – and an espresso to get me home – vowing, all the way, to not leave it so long this time.