Leonardo’s Pizza Palace
Nick Stanton, Guy Bentley, Mark Catsburg and Jonathan Harper are behind casual fine diner Ramblr and party bar Leonard’s House of Love – both in the south. In December 2018 they transplanted the vibe of the latter across the river to Carlton.
The building was once home to Da Salvatore Pizza by the Metre, which opened in 1959. Some of that history has been maintained. Seventies-style timber panelling on the walls, stacked terracotta wine racks behind the bar and terrazzo floors all combine to make Leonardo’s feel like it’s been here forever. In the front bar, under one of many brick archways, a DJ plays tunes from Journey, Johnny Cash and No Zu under the glow of neon Coors Light signage. Beanie-clad bartenders are quick to sort you out with a longneck of Melbourne or a minimal intervention wine and a crostini.
The den-like dining room serves old-school Italian. The shutters on the windows are closed, so even if it’s light outside it’s always night-time in here. Shouts and laughter rumble in from the front bar. It’s the kind of place you could accidentally spend hours in, and wake up dustier than you’d planned. It's almost always busy here, luckily you can book ahead over the phone. Waiters zip across red carpeted floors between compact leather booths. Faded photos of the original owner Salvatore Mercogliano making pizza back in the ’70s are on the walls, among other black-and-white pictures of the Beatles, Marylin Monroe and a plethora of vintage bombshells eating pasta.
At the back of the dining room, another arched opening frames Leonardo’s chefs plating standout eight-slice pepperoni pizzas, among others, served with little cups of ranch dressing “for dipping”. More current is the anchovy, roast pepper, olive and caper pizza, or a pork and fennel sausage option with garlic oil and sage.
Apart from pizza and house-made pasta, the kitchen also churns out smashable, approachable start-of-the-night dishes that lend themselves to a raucous evening. (There’s a reason the coasters say “drink and dine”, not the other way around.) Start with fried sardines and whipped bottarga on super-thin crostini, or a hunk of creamy, soft stracciatella with salt and vinegar marinated, blisteringly hot jalapenos.
A salad of sugar-snap peas, charred broccolini and almonds coated in macadamia cream and shaved pecorino is pretty outstanding. Unrivalled though is the chicken schnitzel – the warped, deep-gold disc arrives with a tonne of garlic butter and capers piled on top.