Papa Leone’s (101-103 Oriental Boulevard at the corner of West End Avenue in Manhattan Beach; 718-648-1349 or 718-648-9832) is a rare vestige of another era: the first rate, top notch neighborhood Italian restaurant, where family skill and pride were the hallmarks of both the kitchen and the dining room.
This is still very much alive where chef and host Angelo Carlino, and his wife, Roula, continue a venerable tradition that goes back many decades.
In business for 44 years and at the same location for 34 years, Papa Leone’s is a true landmark in the area but has roots that include a chain of pizzerias across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Today, all attention is paid to this dining establishment, which also hosts a very busy adjacent pizzeria.
Angelo is as exited and as proud of his food today as he was when he first opened…the plum tomatoes are still hand picked from his own garden, as are the herbs and spices: bay leaves, basil, parsley, oregano, rosemary, etc. The extra virgin olive oil comes direct from Sicily. There are no purees used; everything is made from scratch. The cheese is imported from Sicily, where the family has been in the business for generations.
And, if you have a sweet tooth, Angelo was making homemade gelato long before it became trendy: load up on creamy pistachio, a mixed berry, a tortoni flavor, and so many others. Even the cannolis are homemade and Roula’s specialty is her renowned tiramisu cake.
The dining room is a cozy affair, sporting high ceilings and wide skylights; there are old fashioned coke glasses on the tables, which sport red and white checkered tablecloths. The summer is a great time to visit, as the whole front of the place, facing Oriental Boulevard affords lovely al fresco dining under umbrella tables and is set off from the surrounding area with brick and wrought iron fencing.
The popularity of Papa Leone’s is split between the brick oven type pizza and the main fare in the dining room. Of course, all the usual suspects are created, but how about Portobello and Fresh Mozzarella pizza, or the ala Angelo, with fresh mozzarella, eggplant, grated cheese, basil and just a touch of sauce.
For a quick bite, the kitchen offers a host of paninis and a wide range of heroes and sandwiches. But this write up stresses the dining room, and here the options are plentiful.
Pasta dishes are a mainstay: from six different variations on homemade lasagna to many types of baked manicotti, ravioli and ziti dishes. Then there are the more than two dozen pasta specialties: Rigatoni Filetto di Pomodoro to Rotini with broccoli and chicken. Choose Rigatoni Ortolana with eggplant and ricotta cheese with fresh basil or the Matriciana, with tomato sauce, smoked bacon, onions, basil and herbs.
The long bill of fare is supplemented by nightly specials; on this trip those included a grilled whole snapper, pork chops with onions, peppers and mushrooms and a scallops and shrimp combo prepared with white wine and garlic.
Bust start with one of the many appetizers like the eggplant parmigiana, tender slices that are packed with molten cheeses and a thick red sauce. The baked clams have a superb herbal breading. The mozzarella sticks are these huge blocks that burst with liquid cheese as you cut through them. Calamari Rings are tender and delicious with a wonderful red sauce. The milky fresh mozzarella comes with fresh basil; snappy shrimp are served with a cocktail sauce and potato croquettes are filling and satisfying.
As for the main dish, if veal is your preference, order the tender slices, generously proportioned, with peppers and mushrooms and plenty of garlic; there’s also Francese, Milanese and Rollatine Prosciutto. Chicken dishes are even more extensive, with standards like the chicken parmigiana becoming a new crowd-pleaser. Other choices include Pizzaiola, Scarpariello, grilled and served with salad or roasted potatoes; Marsala and about a dozen others.
And from the waters comes their very famous Frutti Di Mare, which may be ordered for one or two, the oversized platters filled with all that is delicious from the sea and oceans. There is also every variation of shrimp, including being prepared in a vodka sauce.
As for side dishes, choose the grilled portobellos, the sautéed broccoli rabe or the grilled zucchini…there is an extensive array of vegetables to tempt.