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Leon’s Italian Bistro lives up to its billing

By Michelle Reeb

Sal Passalacqua, a true Italian restauranteur
Ambience, class, a quiet setting; you’ll feel like you’re in Sicily, when you dine at Leon’s Italian Bistro. Above is Sal Passalacqua, one of the family members, who run Leon’s and bring fine Italian dining to Niagara Falls

Good food at good prices, made by good people.

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of my dining experience at Leon’s Italian Bistro and Pizza on Porter Avenue. For those inclined to be fast paced and on-the-move, that’s all you need to know. But if you want to take some time and savor the moment, please pause and consider Leon’s.

I came to Leon’s to meet with Frank Parlato, the Reporter’s intrepid publisher. He had told me in advance that the food was good, so I came prepared to eat. We were joined by Darryl McPherson, our executive editor.

Most people in Niagara Falls know Leon’s for its pizza. Originally established at the Summit Park Mall in 1976 by Leon Passalacqua and his brother, it was one of the first tenants of the mall. The business thrived there until essentially being forced out by the closure of the mall. Two years ago, it found a new home on Porter Avenue, and then Leon’s son Sal and his cousin Rose decided to expand the business.

Though being born in America, Sal spent a significant amount of time growing up in Italy. He built his own business there, making and selling fresh pasta for more than seventy restaurants along the coast of Sicily. He wanted to capture a piece of Italy and bring it to America. The success of his effort was noted by our pre-dining discussion, which occurred before we encountered Sal.

Frank told us how he appreciated Leon’s because it reminded him of a genuine restaurant in Sicily, not just some local place that served American-Italian food. It had ambience – the lighting, the music and décor – that briefly took you away from Niagara Falls, New York and transported you someplace else. A portrait on the wall of a port in Sicily subtly accentuated that sense that this was not just a simple bite to eat.

Of course, when it comes to restaurants, the one thing that matters is the quality of the food. In that area, Leon’s did not disappoint. Frank ordered the mussels as an appetizer, which sat in an engaging sauce that he also had the mussels described as "having a kick" to it. He was also pleased to get the spaghetti with a red clam sauce. To the uninitiated among us (including Darryl), most of the time clams are served with a white sauce, so the opportunity to get red is not insignificant. This time what came on the plate were not canned or minced clams, but whole, young, tender clams, that presented the authentic dish of the coastal peoples of Italy: tomatoes, spices, olive oil and spaghetti, harvested from the land and, from the sea: a dozen clams, delicately cooked in their own broth to add a subtle, exquisite essence to the flavor.

This is not effete fare of the over indulgent, corpulent, bored diner, but hearty, strengthening food, for which the Italians are known and have feasted on for centuries.

And in this instance, it was also delicious.

Darryl had the lobster ravioli, which he said tasted like it was homemade. He ordered it with shrimp, which were plentiful and, as he said, “exquisite.” The portions are properly sized, presented beautifully and priced surprisingly well. The most expensive entrée was $20 for the filet mignon.

As Frank termed it, "fine dining at Denny’s prices." Dinner for four, with wine, coffee and appetizers, came out just over $100.
The Passalacqua family cares about the customer and the community. They recognize the realities of today’s economy and try to be reasonable. Whenever possible, they buy their produce locally. As an enterprise, Leon’s has two aspects. There is the pizzeria on one side and the restaurant on the other. The pizza side is very popular and does quite well; people are still discovering the restaurant side. Sal and Rose knew they were doing something unique.

Sal wanted to bring fresh pasta to the region. He posed the question, "how to make your Italian cuisine different? The chef must personalize it. That is how you please the customer." Pleasing the customer is a strong goal for him. He believes in "the art of the flour" and developing the pasta so that its freshness is captured. Two items on the menu feature the fresh pasta, the Pappardelle Bolognese and Casarecce shrimp primavera.

Chef Michael Golba was trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Though it may be strange that an American of Polish descent came to cook Italian cuisine after being educated in a French style, it works quite well. Sal’s philosophy is all-encompassing, "We’re here to learn from each other. I want to teach my children all points of view, not just my own, what good is that?"

I came away from Leon’s well-fed, educated, but hungry for more. Frank made note that he would have to return for the fresh pasta. As Sal pointed out to us, Leon’s is a lifestyle. It’s a dedication, it’s natural. You have to take time to enjoy the food and enjoy the people you are with. "It’s not just a restaurant."

Discover a piece of Italy at Leon’s Italian Bistro and Pizza, 8890 Porter Road, Niagara Falls, New York.

(Next week a look at a Niagara Falls institution: the world famous Como Restaurant.)



Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct 16, 2012