Leonardo’s A Hit With North Shore Foodies

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - January 26, 2011
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Leonardo’s executive chef Hector Morales with his popular thin-crust pizza

When you live in a small community like the one on Oahu’s North Shore, news - particularly of the culinary kind - travels fast. Still, it was something of a surprise to executive chef Hector Morales when word of his excellent thin-crust pizza and house-made pasta traveled so quickly after opening night at Leonardo’s at Turtle Bay Resort, that almost 200 people turned up for dinner the second evening.

“We opened quietly, with no publicity, but it seemed like people up here were desperate for a good Italian restaurant,” he says modestly. “I had people in Haleiwa giving me the high-five sign, saying they’d already heard the pizza was great,” he says, adding, “It’s a small town.”

Morales had the idea of an accessible, inexpensive Italian restaurant for a while, and had been itching to rid the hotel of the nightly buffet that for years had occupied the Palm Terrace.

“Attitudes toward buffets are changing,” he says, “and personally I think that people want to see fresh, good food being made. With our open kitchen, they can come and look right in and see that nothing comes out of a can and that everything is fresh.”

With handmade pasta, fresh, pillowy gnocchi and a menu of comforting staples such as risotto, osso bucco, spaghetti and meat-balls, and specialty dishes that include shrimp and diver scallops, fresh fish and veal scaloppini, it’s no wonder that North Shore residents are spreading the word.

“We wanted to make it easy, affordable and the kind of place where everybody feels welcome,” says Morales.

Most dishes cost under $20; house-made gnocchi with pomodoro or garlic cream sauce is just $13, and the oven-fired, 12-inch pizzas start at $14.

Though choosing a topping can be tough, I opted for the Pizza Funghi ($14) and went into the kitchen with Morales to watch it being made. After only 6 minutes in the 700-degree oven it boasted a perfect cracker-like base and a slightly raised crust.

The pizza success can be partly traced to the open-flame brick oven, and to Morales’ use of imported Caputo flour, long considered to be the best pizza-making flour in the world. The finely ground flour creates an elasticity in the pizza that usually results in a crisp, thin base and soft, puffy edge.

Prior to opening Leonardo’s, Morales spent some time cooking and studying at well-respected Quartino’s Restaurant and

Wine Bar in Chicago, where he worked with noted chef and author John Coletta.

The experience proved to be invaluable.

“At Quartino’s, John Coletta and his crew serve 1,200 people a day,” says Morales. “It was a great way to learn about making authentic Italian food, and I brought back a lot of his tips.”

You can taste for yourself if those tips are working.

Leonardo’s at Turtle Bay Resort is open for dinner nightly from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. You can check out the menu at turtlebayresort.com, and hear an interview with Chef Hector at tabletalkhawaii.com

Happy eating!

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