There are plenty of New Orleans Italian restaurants, but Leonardo Trattoria isn't one of them.
Some of the dishes served here also are found across the wide spectrum of Italian-American eateries in the city, but Leonardo does none of the Creole-Italian hybrids so common at New Orleans Italian restaurants. There are no oyster dishes. When they appear, shrimp are the tiny, sweet 'baby" variety used for flavoring rather than the meaty centerpieces of a dish. There is plenty of local fish, but it is treated to classic Italian sauces rather than mounds of crabmeat. Eschewing the pervasive local influences, chef Leonardo Daniele maintains a focus on Sicilian dishes and cooking styles.
He opened Leonardo Trattoria on the border of the CBD and Warehouse District. It's an attractive space with brick walls, sidewalk seating, a large bar and the curious addition of more than a dozen flat-screen TVs, each silently playing a different DVD, usually a collage of Mafia films.
This is a solid, mid-range restaurant. The food may not blow you away, but neither will the prices, which average about $16 for an entrée. Leonardo's food is strongest and most rewarding where the dishes are least familiar.
This proves especially true with the swordfish carpaccio. There are restaurants in other cities that specialize in this Italian treatment of thin, raw fish, called crudo, but this marks a rare example here at home. The firm, cold slices arrived bathing in olive oil and lemon juice that add zesty succulence to the luxurious texture and strong flavor of the fish.
An appetizer called mozzarella in carrozza is described as fried mozzarella sandwiches, which is technically correct, but they looked more like golden-fried biscuits, soaking in red sauce. They pull apart into the familiar, droopy white strands of hot mozzarella, but the thick, soft crusts holding them together taste like savory French toast. It's a big improvement over the typical fried-cheese appetizer.
Arancini aren't on the menu but frequently appear as a special appetizer. New Orleans diners might consider them akin to calas, the old-fashioned fried rice cakes. These too are made with rice rolled into cakes, though with a dollop of mozzarella, ground beef and a few peas in the center. Break them open with a fork, and the aromatic mixture steams invitingly. A chunky red sauce is served for dipping or spooning over the broken orbs.
One night, Daniele served squash blossoms as a special appetizer. These are literally the flowers of the squash plant, and though they have become more common in local restaurants lately, it is still rare to find them because their freshness after harvesting is so brief and fragile. The tissue-thin petals of these delicate beauties were stuffed with ricotta cheese and fried in a puffy batter that held the bundles together but did not obscure the fine, summery flavor. We devoured them stem and all.
An antipasto plate was generously portioned, but with the exception of a fine prosciutto, the meats were commonplace and the marinated vegetables tasted bland. Simpler is better with the pizzas. The classic Margherita had a small amount of chunky sauce under a solid cap of cheese and a thin, black char on the bottom crust that carried the taste of the warm oven to the table. A pesto pizza with pistachio and baby shrimp was too oily to be eaten by hand, however.
Fish are a particular strongpoint. The tuna we had one night and the rainbow trout on another each came in generous, plate-filling cuts. There is a choice of four sauces for the fish of the night, among them the Sicilian classic salmoriglio and its tangy blend of garlic, lemon and oil. The oil practically fused with the crisped skin of the rainbow trout while the lemon and garlic kept pace with the strongly flavored fish. Your best choice with sauces might depend on the fish species offered any given night. The Calabrese, with acidic tomato and chunky green peppers, paired well with the meaty, pan-seared tuna steak.
The approach here is rustic, but that doesn't excuse the lack of care that afflicted some of the flops. The veal carciofi was sufficiently tender and had meaty artichokes, but the breading, the eggplant and white wine sauce gave the dish a gummy texture. The accompanying pasta and its thin, red sauce seemed to be an afterthought.
When pasta is the centerpiece of the entrée, however, the results were much more satisfying, especially the ravioli and pansotti. That latter item is like thick, loosely folded ravioli, filled with ricotta and spinach on the regular menu or with squash, pumpkin or other pureed vegetables as frequent specials. These oversized pasta pouches are baked until a light-golden crust forms and are served with a creamy sauce. The lobster ravioli is a marquee dish, but the duck ravioli was more memorable, with its tender bits of meat and red sauce touched with brandy and bulked with mushrooms.
Leonardo was consistently busier at lunchtime than any evening we visited. Its location, however, makes it a solid pick for dinner on the way to a Hornets game at the New Orleans Arena or other downtown event.