Leonardo’s Trattoria, Fan Favorite.

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris August 04, 2021 12:00 in Dining Diary

The restaurant that sparked the “cult restaurant” discussion on the radio show is a place in Mandeville that has been wildly popular since its arrival a few years ago. Leonardo’s Trattoria in Mandeville is largely invisible, tucked into a nondescript strip mall, which further attests to its word-of-mouth popularity. For an obscure tiny restaurant tucked into a line of other businesses to have people standing to wait when all outside benches are filled, there must be something wonderful going on here.

And there is. We do not think it is nearly as wonderful as its impassioned regulars, but Leonardo’s Trattoria does indeed deliver. It delivers big portions for cheap prices, but the main box can be checked: it is also good.

There is a real Italian in the kitchen, cooking up all the usual things in the tried and true ways. This is not a hip place. It is simple Italian goodness as you know it should be.

The little space has charm to fit the type of food served. Every table is always filled, with more waiting.

The first time we went to Leonardo’s we got a pizza for an appetizer and two pasta entrees. We liked it all. It has been a long time since we returned to Leonardo’s because while we like it we have our own favorites, so we left the table for its committed fans. But a caller to the show mentioned an expansion, and we were overdue a visit, so we went.

The expansion to an adjacent space makes it look like Leonardo’s One and Leonardo’s Two. It has the same blending as Middendorf’s old and new building, meaning they could be separate restaurants. While the original Leonardo’s could be from the Old Country, the new space is more modern and hip, with a new wood burning oven in the corner and a dessert counter featuring cannoli, tiramisu and gelato. A sign hanging from the ceiling calls it a pasticceria. Not exactly, but it is fun. This portion of the restaurant is much lighter and airier, always a preference for me. This new space will get me back there sooner.

As usual, we started with pizza, here a cross between Neapolitan and New York-style. The crust is a little odd, more like a cracker than one would expect. There is a build-your-own section, and I got pepperoni and sausage as well as artichokes and mushrooms. After four there is an upcharge. Tom had his usual Margherita.

While mine was strikingly ordinary, (which I remembered from last time), Tom’s Margherita was really very good, loaded with regular old mozzarella cheese (definitely not the buffalo milk) and fresh basil. 

For entrees we had lasagna and aglio olio. The latter has come up so often on the radio show it is foremost in my mind when I can order it. I’m also curious to compare this dish around town, which supposedly has three ingredients: crushed red pepper, garlic, and olive oil.

The version at Leonardo’s is the purist’s version. When the large pile arrived at the table looking like an oily, beautiful beehive, I worried that the charred garlic might be burned. There was a lot of it poking through the pasta, having been woven into the mass the way it is served, a technique I want to learn. The way the pasta sat on the plate allowed for a diner to merely cut with their fork a presentable amount of pasta. Very orderly and manageable. No skill required of twirling onto the large spoon, no Lucy-At-The-Brown Derby spaghetti scene.

This gorgeous dome of spaghetti had a moat of olive oil, a pretty garnish of parsley on top, and the aforementioned generous whole cloves of garlic, toasted to the edge of being overdone, but perfect. They were also generous with the Parmesan, and this was a too-large but very tasty pile of carbs. It was so good I kept vowing to stop eating it, and finally did, but way past the embarrassing point.

The lasagna was a surprise. In a place like this I would expect the lasagna to be presented in a block or slab either in a dish or out, but this was a more interesting and modern version of the dish, fluid on the plate as lasagna noodles with no boundaries. It was very tasty, cheesy, blended well, and also hard to stop eating. There is an old-fashioned taste to the red sauce here, but it is still good.

Both of these dishes were quite satisfying and so filling dessert was unthinkable. It was an enjoyable meal in a convivial environment of friendly regulars. 

We are not as enthusiastic about this place as its legion of devotees, but we certainly can’t argue with them. Leonardo’s Trattoria is wildly popular for obvious reasons.