Story by Kristen Schmidt
We can learn to love a lot of things as grown-ups. Things like salmon, public radio, memoirs and afternoon naps. But some experiences of childhood are made for a lifetime of clinging and rose-colored glasses. You’re probably still rooting for the pro baseball team you lionized as a kid. And you’re probably still eating your hometown pizza, at least in style. We are fiercely loyal to our original pizzas, which is why you can get pizza a la Detroit, Youngstown, Chicago and New York here in Columbus. When we seek out pizza, the ultimate comfort food, we seek out the flavors that are ultimately comforting — the ones we learned to love before we were subjected to adulthood and presidential election politics.
This is a long way of saying I hate New York-style pizza. Having grown up outside Chicago, the pie that dances through my dreams is party cut with a crackery, crisp crust. And I remain in mourning for defunct Leonardo’s spinach-stuffed pizza, a fat, brawny disc crowned with a layer of crushed-tomato sauce that jumped with zing.
But when friends started buzzing about Leone’s, a New York-style pizza place on Sinclair Road only a couple miles from home, I listened and dialed in a takeout order, prepared to unleash insults about grease and floppiness. Several orders later, I’m still dialing Leone’s and discovering new joys and surprises on its small menu.
It won’t win any fancy gourmet-pizza contests. Leone’s will probably never have a crafted cocktails list, or even a beer list. It’s an odd storefront on an odd strip of Sinclair Road a mile or so south of Dublin-Granville Road. But Leone’s food satisfies and soothes, even if you think New York-style pizza is an abomination.
This is an embarrassing cliche, but Leone’s food tastes homemade. As in made by your grandma. Sure, the cannoli and the sauce on the LaRose pasta are too sweet. And the Herbivore ($12/$17/$19) and Carnivore ($14/$19/$21) pizzas are so overburdened with their respective good things that you’ll want to keep a fork and knife at hand. But the cook also tucks just enough coins of Italian sausage bound in marinara sauce into hero bread (Sausage Parmigiana sandwich, $8) baked fresh in the restaurant. Garlic Knot Sliders ($5) — simply garlic knots stuffed with meatballs and more of that sticky marinara — are messy and indulgent, the kind of thing that could have come from a back-of-the-box recipe. Caesar salad ($7) isn’t that different from what you’d make on a Tuesday night, except the garlicky croutons clearly were not shaken from a box and a hint of anchovies in the dressing signals it, too, has been made from scratch.
Also, it feels so liberating to tear into a chewy, floppy, comically large slice of pizza, after several years of being told the thing to eat is Neapolitan-style pie and its cousins (see: Harvest, Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza, Paulie Gee’s). That stuff is popular for good reason: Its blisters and discriminating toppings and provenance combine for often magical results. But why go highbrow all the time? Neither the kid in you nor your kid will balk at a Leone’s Margherita pizza ($12/$17/$19), while a Geary Street (clams, garlic, oregano) or Spicy Yuma (chorizo, jalapeno, corn) from Harvest feels a bit daring. (They’re both outstanding pizzas, by the way.)
For what to order at Leone’s: Scan the menu for pizzas that have minimal toppings. They pack a ton of flavor — these folks are not shy with the garlic — but they’ll also be supported by the chewy and sturdy-ish crust. The Margherita and Bianco (mozzarella, ricotta, garlic, olive oil, fresh basil) are excellent introductions to the menu (both $12/$17/$19). Graduate to the aromatic Tartufo (shredded and fresh mozzarella, wild mushrooms, rosemary, truffle oil; $17/$22/$24), even if you’ve sworn off truffle oil, like I had.
Order at will from the hero sandwiches portion of the menu, too. All of the sandwiches ($8) are built in long, toasted hero rolls dusted with herbs. That bread stood up to a hefty serving of sausage, peppers and thick marinara sauce, making for a remarkably neat eating experience.
If you do decide to eat in at the restaurant, you might be treated to a bit of a show by chef and owner Ryan LaRose, a champion pizza-dough tosser, aka dough acrobatic artist. LaRose, 30, has been working with pizza since he was 15 and competing in dough acrobatics in 2007. Earlier this year, LaRose won a culinary competition (with that Tartufo pie) and will go on to the 2017 World Pizza Championship in Italy.
Even when the food at Leone’s is technically flawed, it bears the signature of human touch, and so it still tastes good. That makes this food every bit as comforting as your original pizza. Even if you’re not from New York.
5413 Sinclair Road, North Side
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Sun, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon-Thu, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri-Sat
Recommended: Margherita, Bianco and Tartufo pizzas, hero sandwiches, Garlic Knot Sliders, LaRose pasta
Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
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