What if the city’s next great sit-down pizzeria were also its next great slice joint? Leo, from the team behind the Bushwick hit Ops, whose wood-fired Neapolitan pies still generate hour-plus waits, shows every sign of becoming both. And while Brooklyn pie-making is so good these days that I might repeat this claim when yet another cool dude with a beard decides to find truth in dough, for now, you want to be eating at Leo.
Owners Mike Fadem and Gavin Compton rose to fame at Ops, where they bake their durum- and wheat-laced pies to the softness of crisp pillows and offer reasonably democratic natural wine service that emphasizes accessibility and affordability. Half the draw, of course, has always been the space, a quirky, rustic, angular amalgamation of wood and brick, a place where the kitchen feels as close as the table next to you.
Leo doesn’t quite have the same feel. The restaurant, which opened in December, gives off about as much charm as a generic bowl chain in the evenings, though the larger, 70-seat space helps with the crowds, as does the cafe next door for all-day lounging and take-out. There’s no live fire here, either. Like the Franks over at F&F, Leo uses a Pizza Master-brand oven, an expensive, precise — and Swedish — electric device that allows the kitchen to mimic the quality of a hearth.
But more importantly: The venue serves both ambitious Neapolitan pies and cheaper square slices. This in itself is a rarity.
New York’s ubiquitous takeout pizzerias are adept at slinging all sorts of various styles under the same roof, classic margheritas sitting next to fat Sicilian slices and crazy ziti pies. Fancier institutions, however, tend to focus on a singular kind of whole pie and that’s it. Walking into a chic Neapolitan spot and expecting a slice is like walking into Aaron Franklin’s beef brisket emporium in Austin and asking for Carolina-style whole hog barbecue.
Leo is the outlier sit-down venue that serves both those ethereal Neapolitan pies, and thin, Roman-style al taglio squares. The availability of each is a boon for anyone who thinks the best New York pizzerias should be places where people can swing by for an $8 snack or a $70 dinner, and feel no less welcome either way.
Leo’s pizza is exquisite — if you choose wisely. Individual slices start at $3.25 and exhibit a Zalto wine stem-level of weightlessness. On a marinara slice, the bread, barely thinner than an iPhone, puts up a touch more resistance than a saltine cracker when chomped, with a taste that ranges from nutty and smoky at first to profoundly sweet on the finish. It’s a flavor profile that acts as a counterpoint to the assertively tart and umami-rich tomatoes — a blend of Bianco di Napoli from California and Gustarosso from Puglia. The closest point of reference would be the supremely thin Roman slices at Bread & Salt in Jersey City, which exhibit more consistency across the styles. What I mean is: Skip the bland cheese slice at Leo and stick to the marinara.
Neapolitan pies might be even better, particularly the margherita. If the outer rim of the pies at Una Pizza or Ops are all about toasted marshmallow airiness, Leo’s takes a sturdier tact. The kitchen lets the rim grow nice and fat, but keeps those softer inclinations in check with more crackly edges here and there, along the lines of what one might encounter at, say, Razza in Jersey City. Closer to the interior, the crust is razor thin, but stands up to the weight of the toppings (if only that were true of the soupy droopy, mess of a marinara pie).
In most cases, chefs use tomatoes to reel in the creamy richness of fresh mozzarella, but at Leo, the kitchen finds as much balance through the tangy bread as the pulpy, fragrant fruit. The dough’s natural leavening results in a sourdough punch that’s assertively piquant, helping to tame the luscious Caputo Brothers milk curd. Finally, unblemished shards of basil sing with the force of a spring garden. Few margherita pies are bad at New York’s top pizzerias, but it’s rare that one stands out with such bright flavors as this one. It is the pizza equivalent of Robin Williams in a suit, well-dressed and seemingly mild mannered but ready to transform into a tornado of pure energy at a moment’s notice.
I’m hesitant to recommend a specific wine, as the $14 pours rotate regularly, and not a single selection is actually printed on the menu. It’s a clever move by beverage director Sierra Echegaray, as the policy virtually ensures every single patron has to converse with the friendly staffers to pick out a wine, putting everyone on the same footing (you can also browse the wine fridge yourself, with many bottles in the $45-$75 range). Lucky patrons might find a 2016 Binner riesling from Alsace, which is like a typical trocken but with a kombucha kick; it efficiently scrubs the tongue following a few briny bites of feathery clam pie with pecorino.
Leo, its occasional flaws aside, offers some of the city’s top Neapolitan pies and square slices after just a few months of operation. I’m naming them a BUY, along with the restaurant’s smart wine program.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).