29 Grattan St Carlton, VIC 3053
|Opening hours||Tue-Thu 5pm-midnight; Fri-Sun noon-midnight|
|Features||Licensed, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9242 0666|
A pizza battle royale is playing out in the back streets of Carlton and the ultimate winner is you. Who would have thought a single suburb could handle not one but two modern spins on New York red sauce joints, serving pizzas, pastas and a bunch of fancy booze? No one, most likely. But it can. Here's why.
In one corner you have Capitano, from the Bar Liberty team, which emerged a little bit schmicker than expected. There is nice foliage, a few linen-clothed tables and cutlery presented in plush leather rolls. Chef Casey Wall and co are serving pizza with polish, a $65 schnitzel of distinction sourced from boutique butcher Meatsmith and some pretty nerdy drinks.
Here at Leonardo's Pizza Palace, in the glorious historied corner edifice that was most recently Da Salvatore Pizza By the Metre, the pitch is almost identical: negronis on good ice to start; quality boxed wine available by carafe; plain cheese or pepperoni pizzas and unapologetic odes to humble pastas like spag bol. The dial is just cranked a little harder to party.
Every bit the sibling of Leonard's House of Love (the South Yarra saloon featuring log walls and taxidermy ferrets wrestling cobras) this is a dark and dangerous den for good times.
A lot of the building's natural charms – both from its time serving metre pizzas, and backwhen it was the Satori family's quite important La Cacciatore (game-changing for its fresh hunted game-serving ways) – have flowed into the new identity.
See the leadlight windows featuring crossed guns and the warren of woody, red brick nooks kept nocturnal by the arched shuttered windows. Yellow glass lanterns and Coors signs now set it excellently aglow. A brick and tiled arch frames chef Nick Stanton and crew feeding the wood-and-gas fuelled pizza hellmouth while the Zombies keep tempo and portraits of JFK, Hulk Hogan and Bridget Bardot keep watch while slurping their spaghetti.
The effect is that you have no idea of the era or even time of day, but you are never unsure of Leonardo's intentions to show you a good time via some of the heftiest Yank-Oz-Italian around.
Shakers of chilli and powdered parmesan are ready to pimp your ride, and that's a journey you might want to strap in for. Stanton rarely pulls a flavour punch, and rarely misses.
So you'll dive in with crostini both delicately lacy and potently amped with fresh, grilled sardines and a pickle as circuit breaker for the funk, maybe bullhorn peppers sweet and oily and crunched up with hazelnuts like freeform romesco, or a classic tangy one-two of goat's curd with smooshed tomato. Do it all.
Consider the smashed stracciatella too, loaded with an oregano-pungent tomato crush – a dish that will get better as those tomatoes peak over summer.
Beyond, cede resistance to the gods of carbs and cheese or go home. Mushroom spaghetti is deeply likeable, and the spag bol has its own allure. It's darkly beefy, slightly tangy, smooth and loaded with powdered parmesan.
Stanton's pizzas are intense beasts of burden with a heavy toppings-to-base ratio reminiscent of old-school Aussie creations – albeit with better cheese and a proper fire-charred crust.
Unlike Capitano's plain cheese pie, which is made to be embellished, each slice here, loaded with fior di latte and the house mix of monterey jack, mozzarella and provolone, leaves a good foot of stretch behind.
Flavours then run the gamut from ham and pineapple (everything you remember, with better ham) to spicy, saucy Chinese bolognese zinged with a little Sichuan pepper, a pepperoni assembled with OCD precision and the essential vegan entry starring kale, broccoli and macadamia cream.
Long-fermented dough sits surprisingly light. That's until you upgrade your schooner of beer to a $20 pitcher of the smashable Leonardo's Bath Tub Brew, or try to lighten the load with broccolini and snap pea salad only to find it fringed in nuts and pecorino, then stick a raspberry-studded salted caramel and maraschino cherry ice-cream on top.
All of which you should do. In fact, I challenge you to enter this space-and-time warp and not get swept up in the excess. Welcome to a cheesy carb party stacked with baller beers, big flavours and a bring it attitude you can't say no to.
Pro Tip: Order fewer pizzas than you think – these are beasts of burden.
Go-to Dish: Cheese pizza $18.