Leaving aside the traditional post-Christmas lull in the restaurant business, these are dismal days for the mid-market chains, Italian ones especially. Even the middle-class’s favourite Pizza Express, once seemingly invulnerable, is said to be in trouble.

Where queues once snaked round the block – at Oxford’s pioneer branch of Jamie’s Italian for instance – ranks of empty tables can often be observed.

Stablemates Zizzi and Ask, I read, are off to China in search of new markets. The Sunday Times wrote recently of a high street crisis that has “pulverised” the company, along with rival Prezzo.

The latter has made savage inroads into its estate, cutting back by 94 outlets to just over 200. Now it is introducing a new menu – going back to its Milanese roots, as it is claiming – in some of the branches. “The Milanese spirit runs through us,” gushes its website, “like an Aperol spritz. It shows in everything we do.”

Thus far, only a handful of its restaurants have changed, among them the large one in Thame, ranged across two floors on a prominent site overlooking the market square.

Once it was a basic called The Oxford Arms. I heard something of its history from the town’s mayor Anne Midwinter during a jolly conversation at the restaurant’s relaunch party, an event significantly enlivened by the cocktails served, including one featuring Sipsmith gin, rose hip syrup and raspberries.

We were celebrating not just the new menu – with group executive chef Paul Lewis there to introduce some of the dishes – but also a tasteful refurbishment to the premises.

This eliminated the last vestiges of the dark-stained pubby feel to give the brighter look obvious in the picture.

A few weeks after the party Rosemarie and I once more boarded an Arriva 280 bus to Thame for a full-scale dinner at Prezzo. Wholly satisfactory this turned out to be.

Checking in just before 8pm, we were offered a choice of tables in the busy, buzzy restaurant. We opted for one next to a window with a useful ledge for overspill – water glasses for instance – from the table.

First came something stronger in the shape of cocktails, both in suitable Milanese style featuring Campari. Mine was the Milanese Gin & Tonic with Tanqueray gin; Rosemarie’s was Spagliato, a version of a Negroni with prosecco substituted for the gin.

As we read the menu we ate crispy music bread – so called because it’s thin enough, uncooked, for a sheet of music to be read through it.

Orders having been taken, food came with commendable despatch.

Rosemarie began with an admirably constructed minestrone, a fusion of tomatoes, root vegetables and celery – a dish suitable to Veganuary, if taken without the grated parmesan most think indispensable. Oregano croutons were a nice touch.

I went for king prawns, after checking these were not shell-on, a messy inconvenience I can do without. There were five, of decent size, marinated in lemon, chilli, garlic and parsley, served with fiery roquito chillis and crostini croutons.

For her main course, Rosemarie chose from the new range of dishes that now supplement the range of pizzas and pastas. These include grilled polenta with king prawns, risotto di mare with salmon, prawns, saffron and rocket, and aubergine parmigiana (layers of aubergine, tomato and basil).

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She picked chicken Milanese, a fillet of tender chicken in crunchy breadcrumbs, served with tomato and red onion salad, and a side order of fries.

From the range of signature pasta dishes (again new) I went for tortelli crab and lobster, oblong packets of slippery, al dente pasta packed with seafood, and served with a saffron sauce, chilli and spinach.

The Oxford Times:

The South African chenin blanc (Cullian View) – fresh with peach and pears – suited us nicely.

I finished with one of the range of mini desserts – vanilla cheesecake – which are served with a hot drink, an americano in my case. Rosemarie had the chocolate brownie dome, with white chocolate sauce and raspberries. Yummy.

The facts

Prezzo, 12a Butter Market, Thame, Oxfordshire, OX 9 3EW, tel: 01844218542, prezzorestaurants.co.uk/restaurant/thame
Opening times: 11.30am-10pm (11pm Fri and Sat)
Parking: Large public car park immediately adjacent 
General manager: Panos Tiligadas
Do try the . . minestrone £5.80, king prawns £6.95, tortelli crab and lobster £14.40, chicken Milanese £12.50, mini-dessert of vanilla cheesecake with raspberries and coffee £5.90, chocolate brownie dome £6.25