When trying a new pizza place for the first time, I tend to start as simply as I can. Either plain cheese, or if they have it, a Margarita slice tells you about all you need to know about the kinds of pies a place is slinging. Being free of the distractions of toppings gives you a much clearer picture of the entire restaurant, and the attitude they are taking with regard to their product. You can judge the quality of the crust, the amount and spice of the sauce, the kinds of tomatoes that were used, and whether or not the restaurant is paying the extra dollar per pound for decent mozzarella. Indeed, the plain cheese slice is something you could make your life’s study, as a pizza man, so subtle are the interplay of ingredients and so important is component to the whole.
Why, then, do Portland area pizza places seem to have such an absurdly high amount of what I would consider California Pizza Kitchen-style “novelty” pizzas? Why all the goat cheese, the arugula, and the barbecued chicken? Why the leeks, the Gerneral Tso’s sauce, and the philly cheese steak? And why is it that, so far, the more complex the offerings of a particular establishment, the less-competent that place seems to be with the humble cheese slice? Look, if I am looking at a pizza menu, and I see that you are putting buffalo wing sauce on there instead of tomato sauce, and then you are piling on mozzarella, breaded chicken chunks, and gobs of blue cheese, my reaction isn’t “Ooh, how innovative,” instead it’s, “You, sir, do not like pizza.” I’m as excited as you are that you thought to put mashed potatoes and pesto onto a pizza, but unless you have absolutely, unequivocally NAILED the plain cheese slice, I am not going to be impressed by whatever else you’ve decided to pile on there.
Like many other area pizza places, Leonardo’s Pizza has some complicated offerings. In fact, that’s putting mildly. Leonardo’s will put any godamned thing you can think of on a pizza, with four different types of crust, five different kinds of sauce, and then a veritable shopping list of 26 types of additional toppings. I navigated my way past the “Asian Thai Chicken,” with chicken, Thai peanut sauce, mushrooms, red onions, green bell peppers, and broccoli. I didn’t order the “Sausage Alfredo Supreme,” with its Alfredo sauce in place of tomato sauce, chopped garlic, spinach, mushrooms, plum tomatoes, hot Italian sausage, and Gorgonzola. I didn’t want a crust-dumpster, I wanted a pizza. I ordered a plain cheese, medium, regular crust, at $9.95 for a medium.
The results weren’t bad. The crust was fluffy and airy, chewy, with a nice slope down from a thick rolled crust, to a thin crust at the point of the slice. The sauce was nicely spiced and not too sweet, but cooked a little too long. I prefer a brighter tomato sauce. The cheese was of a decent quality, with low grease and nice pull. I was also happy to see that the Leonardo’s style involves a tiny bit more cooking time than we have seen previously. While it certainly wasn’t the charred perfection of a Pepe’s or a Modern, you could see some definite darkening of the mozzarella. After the wet, wiggly slices we have been eating lately, this was a nice surprise.
Ultimately, though, this pizza didn’t make much of an impression. It wasn’t bad, by any means…I just don’t see why you would order this pizza over any of the national chains, and who wants one of those? If anything, my strongest impression of this pizza was that it would be what the jaded teenagers who worked at a Domino’s would cook up after hours, after the doors had been closed for the night. If you took the standard, plain ingredients offered by a chain restaurant, and then ever-so-slightly tweaked the technique and went off-instructional poster (that is, used a tiny extra dough, a little more sauce, and cooked it a little bit longer, and didn’t count how many handfuls of cheese you put on) this is what you’d get. A perfectly serviceable pizza, but certainly nothing special, and nothing I would go out of my way for. If I lived nearby, I could see popping in every now and again, but their own apparent lack of interest in their cheese pies won’t convince me to return to branch out into any of their “gourmet” options.