THERE’S SOMETHING about Savannah that keeps people coming back. Whether a multi-visit tourist, a student that comes back here to live after being away at college, or a soldier looking forward to their station at Hunter Army Airfield, the charm of Savannah seems to get a grip on folks from all walks of life.
Luckily for Savannah, there’s a name among those come-backers that you may recognize, and he’s brought back with him his incredible and locally famous Italian cuisine—Roberto Leoci.
If you’ve lived in Savannah for any length of time, the likelihood of you having eaten Chef Leoci’s food or seeing his sauces in the local Whole Foods on Victory Drive is pretty high.
Upon closing up Leoci’s Trattoria in 2016, Leoci wanted to do a bit of traveling. After going from New York to the Carribean and everywhere in between, Chef Leoci decided to come back to Savannah and open up a new restaurant—Leoci’s Mercato Italiano.
My very first question to Chef Leoci is—why come back? I should have been able to guess his response: Family is a huge part of Italian culture.
As he held his son he smiled and said, “I came back to Savannah for my son Nico. It is my first child, and I was very excited and wanted to be part of his life.”
Be not confused, Leoci’s may have a new name and a new location, but much of the same food you knew and loved at Leoci’s Trattoria is reflected in some way on the new menu at Leoci’s Mercato Italiano.
Leoci told me that “the menu is very similar. Every Chef evolves and gets better and better. If you do it year after year, you get better and better. There are classic dishes I have been doing and they are more refined.”
Although the new menu is similar, yet refined, the new name Leoci’s Mercato Italiano is not. As you probably guessed, the Italian translation of mercato is market, and the new restaurant features just that.
In the dining room you will find an entire wall filled with Leoci’s handmade and unique items to take home. Strawberry rhubarb jam and peach jalapeño jam are just a few of the unique creations stacked for sale.
Keeping with the theme of the neighborhood Italian market, Chef Leoci told me that the ingredients are sourced from the areas surrounding where we live, “Hunter Cattle, Vincent Baker Farms, Southern Swiss Dairy, and some stuff I go to the market and get.”
The dinner menu features almost any type of pasta you can imagine, yet every pasta dish is created with a bit of flare. You cannot go into Leoci’s Mercato Italiano and expect to simply see spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna. (But if that’s your thing, Leoci has you covered too.)
Almost every single pasta available is created by hand. Leoci explained the process:
“We have an extruder from Italy, and we extrude all of our pastas. The only pasta we do not do is the angel hair pasta. It is fun because you get to do any flavor you want.”
To me, this is what makes Italian food legitimate—if they make their own pasta, and the pasta is good, the dishes are going to be much more authentic, and “authentic” is a great word to describe these pasta dishes.
Keeping with tradition, the recipe for the Italian restaurant’s pasta uses semolina flour unlike many versions which use all purpose flour. The final result is a pasta that is slightly chewier, which is ideal to stand up to a coating of hearty sauce.
“It is more al dente than people expect because semolina is a harder grain,” Chef Leoci told me.
If you cannot find something new on the menu or have already tried it all, I suggest going for a daily special. “My specials that I do are dishes that I work with my peers [to create] or [other] Chefs that I look up to. Some of the dishes are my take on what I learned from them.”
There were two pastas on the specials menu when I stopped in for lunch. A salmon orecchiette paired with a cream sauce and spinach, and pasta tossed in a red sauce and jammed with green beans and Hunter Cattle sausage.
I also asked Chef Leoci how he uses the beautiful giant red woodfire oven sitting in view from the dining room, his response was “there are only three pizzas on the menu because I use the woodfire oven for everything else.”
The Brick Oven Olives and the beets in the Burrata Salad are just some of the items you will find on the menu that are charred in the woodfire oven.
During my visit, I tried the Margherita Pizza, a traditional Italian pizza made simply with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. The crust was chewy on the outside yet tender inside, with a heavy char from its bake in the woodfire oven.
A huge amount of sweetness was lended to the dish from the tomatoes. As you bite into a slice the fresh torn basil cut through the richness of the cheese.
The Quattro Formaggi is a white pizza that is served with creamy mozzarella, nutty parmesan, tangy Gorgonzola, and delicate ricotta cheese over the top.
Finally, the last pizza on the menu is the Arugula e Prosciutto. Leoci’s version is created using a tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, arugula, and sweet and salty prosciutto di parma.
Much like the rest of the menu, the dessert menu features traditional Italian desserts like cannoli and tiramisu but you can also find something like Leoci’s sinfully delicious chocolate layered cake.
So, if you’re in the Southside area and wanting some traditional, authentic Italian food, don’t forget about Leoci’s new spot in Twelve Oaks Shopping Center. The address may be on Abercorn Street, but when you walk in the doors, be prepared to be transported by the love and aroma to a quaint Italian kitchen in Sicily.