Review: Leo is part LuMi, part Oscillate Wildly

Maccheroncini pasta with lobster.
Maccheroncini pasta with lobster.  Photo: James Brickwood

We made it. For a while there, it looked as if the future of dining would be burgers and lasagne; both excellent in their own way, but neither enough to return any sort of self-respecting future to the hospitality industry. The law of diminishing returns is also the law of diminishing dreams, and it's the dreams we need to hold on to.

When LuMi's Federico Zanellato and Oscillate Wildly's Karl Firla dreamed of opening an Italian restaurant in Angel Place last March – a lifetime ago – they thought they would start with house-made pastries, breads and coffees from their cafe and bar Piccoleo, then follow up with the adjoining Restaurant Leo (L for Lumi and O for Oscillate joined by the Italian for "and"). Instead they had to do takeaway.

Amazing takeaway, but it wasn't where their hearts were. This is: a calm, inner-city space decked out in Armani greys, greens and creams, with double-clothed tables, dark bentwood chairs and a central table stocked high with native greenery rather than flowers.

Leo's calm, inner-city space.
Leo's calm, inner-city space. Photo: James Brickwood

Yes, Leo has now opened, and in spite of social distancing and a still-quiet CBD, it is something to celebrate. Neither LuMi nor Oscillate, it is Italian and a la carte; the menu a roll-call of traditional Italian trattoria classics. But these guys couldn't do tratt if they tried.

Even the bread is a freshly baked slipper of ciabatta with whippy anchovy butter that sings with sea-salty tang. Order borlotti bean soup ($18) and you get a warm vegetal sludge of flavour-packed broth with fat little beans and plump, fleshy, Spring Bay mussels, so large as to look inflatable.

Beetroot carpaccio ($17) is another dimension, an artwork formed by glossy, precisely sliced discs overlapping like fish scales on a pesto of rocket and parmesan. More acidity would add depth, but it's still a thing of beauty.

Borlotti bean soup with mussels.
Borlotti bean soup with mussels. Photo: James Brickwood

Some dishes are luxurious – and can be made even more luxurious with $15 worth of shaved Manjimup truffle. Two neat packets of veal saltimbocca ($35) are gift-wrapped in prosciutto crudo, scented with sage and bathed in a beautifully buttery marsala sauce.

Maccheroncini with lobster ($33) is downright deluxe, with its rich, bisque-like sauce, small hunks of Queensland's champagne lobster, and curvy, chewy, little pasta shaped like plumbing pipes.

Sommelier Fabio Sercecchi suggests a light red or an Italian chardonnay – Lombardy's 2018 Tenuta Mazzolino chardonnay ($20/95) has a buttery savouriness that suits.

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This is dining as a restorative act, among a handful of tables of quiet, focused couples in a charming room shaped like a wedge of parmigiano, with the attentive but unfussy Alex Grenouiller alert to any need.

Both Firla and Zanellato are in the kitchen, but their dishes have such a refined aesthetic, you wouldn't know who has done what.

"Tartufo, tartufo" ($33) is an extravagant, seasonal play on the traditional ice-cream, with creamy beurre noisette and hazelnut ice-creams and jammy truffle caramel under shavings of real tartufo (truffle).

Veal saltimbocca.
Veal saltimbocca. Photo: James Brickwood

Ah, but the Vacche Rosse parmesan custard ($22) is just ridiculous; the texture of creme brulee under its fluffy cheese shroud, ready to slather on crisp pane carasau.

Now that we have had a little distance from the dining-out scene, it's a good time to ask ourselves what we really want from our restaurants. I'm not racing back to the lengthy multi-course format. That spell has broken, the format is a zombie.

Instead, I need less fuss, less expense, more flexibility and more warmth. I want a freshness of thinking, from a diversity of voices. And I want food that's better than I can cook for myself.

Vache rosse parmesan custard with crispbread.
Vache rosse parmesan custard with crispbread. Photo: James Brickwood

Leo's gentle, elegant flavours are cleverly pitched between comfort and luxury, elevated by two chefs who wouldn't know what a cook-ahead short-cut was if it whacked them in the knees.

If there's such a thing as homely fine dining, this is it. Not a bad template for the future, perhaps. At least something to build a dream on.

The low-down

Address Restaurant Leo, shop 1, 2-12 Angel Place, Sydney

Bookings restaurantleo.com.au

Open Lunch Tue-Fri from noon; dinner Thu-Fri from 5.30pm

Dining window Two hours

Takeaway None

Protocols Socially distanced tables, contactless pre-payment

Vegetarian Cauliflower fontina gratin, celeriac Milanese.

Drinks Good cocktail action and Italian beers, with a rewarding wine list focusing on naturally nuanced Italian varietals.

Cost About $180 for two, plus drinks

Score While the industry works to get back on its feet, the practice of scoring reviews has been paused.