Leonardo's, unlike almost anywhere in town, is an Italian dining spot overseen by an Italian — one who hails from Naples, home of the red sauce often associated with southern Italy.
Owner Leonardo Capezzuto's background, from what I understand, is more in coffee than in pasta, but nevertheless, there is something different — and better — about the hybrid Italian-American fare at this extremely casual and unfussy little café on the ground floor of Park Plaza downtown.
The menu focuses on a few breakfast pastries, several pasta entrees, some sandwiches and salads, and pizza. Shortcuts, such as canned marinara, are taken but jazzed up. In the coming months, however, things are supposed to expand with a line of locally made cheese — such as the great Sapori d'Italia — and more will be made in-house.
This is a good thing, because those creations are the best choices.
For example, the penne or spaghetti Bolognese ($6.49) — or what we consider pasta with meat sauce — is wonderful, rich with ground beef and not too heavy on the tomatoes, getting its layers of flavor from carrots and onions. What sets this version apart from so many others is the understanding that the sauce coats, rather than floats, the pasta. One order is plenty for two meals, and it reheats beautifully. (Add chili flakes to it and pretend to be in Sicily.)
Capezzuto is a spontaneous and generous host. Sometimes, if you seem enthusiastic like I suppose I do when faced with an Italian in the kitchen, he will whip up something off the menu, like fusilli con ricotta ($6.88), or corkscrew pasta in tomato sauce with ricotta cheese. The thick texture of ricotta makes it the ideal, and more nutritious, substitute for cream because it ramps up a sauce's body while retaining a similar gorgeous rosy shade.
For a healthy and simple lunch, try an inexpensive and delicious turkey panino ($4.99). The meat comes from a package, but all the garnishes bring the sandwich together: ripe, juicy tomatoes, bright basil leaves, a bit of gouda cheese. The slightly crisp toast, scored with grill marks, gave way to nice, soft bread (although I'd wager this sandwich would be even better with something baked at Sunrise Bakery across the street).
Leonardo's is the first place in Lexington where I have had a macchiato ($.99/$1.75): a demitasse of espresso and steamed milk, with a mere shake of cocoa powder and just the right amount of sugar. This junior-size version of cappuccino is not on the menu, so ask for it.
Sometimes, it is true, there might be missteps, like the marinara sauce in the spaghetti and meatballs ($6.99) that was watery and just the opposite of all the other pastas. I can't figure out what happened. Maybe the World Cup from the large-screen television in the corner was distracting? The plump tender meatballs, on the other hand, melted in my mouth.
The large Caesar salad ($5.99) was the biggest anomaly. This salad was standard and predictable, something you could make at home, and utterly out of place in an Italian café. Why not, with so many worthy cold vegetables in the Italian repertoire, lead the pack with a nice assortment of antipasti? That one's on my wish list.
Leonardo's might be a work in progress, balancing the expectations of the downtown crowd, inspiration from home and the general rhythm of restaurant work, but all of the basics are there for this hole-in-the-wall to become a little taste of Naples in Lexington.
That one also is on my wish list.