For the brothers Leonardi, food is family. Larry and Brian grew up around the restaurants of Baltimore’s Little Italy, the inspiration for the place they have created in Reisterstown.
Family. The Leonardi brothers opened Ristorante Firenze in 2015 with Larry’s son, Zach, as executive chef. At 24, he’s a young head chef, but like his dad and uncle, he has lived and breathed Italian food for as long as he can remember. “What inspires me would be memories of cooking with my grandmother and mother,” Zach says. “As a kid, I remember my grandmother walking around with a dish towel over her shoulder, stirring this or cutting up that.”
As children, Larry and Brian partook in the sacred ritual of the Italian family dinner. “Sunday dinner was always big,” Larry says. “My great-grandmother didn’t speak a lick of English, but we’d go over to her house and she’d have a big pot on the stove with special sauce. It was always a red sauce, but you had no idea what was going to be in it,” he continues with a laugh. For the record, no matter what went in that sauce, it was always delicious.
The brothers grew up in Hamilton but spent many days in Little Italy, where their uncle’s parents opened Velleggia’s in 1937. The East Baltimore neighborhood was “our playground — the streets and the restaurants,” Brian remembers. “The old ladies would always find something for us to do, little jobs.” Larry and Brian frequented Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop, still an institution in the neighborhood, looking for work. “I’d go sweep the floor and get a free cookie,” Larry says. “And then I’d go over to Mugavero’s, take out the trash and get a hot dog.”
Food. Firenze focuses on Tuscan cuisine. The Leonardi family has roots in a hill town called Narni, which sits between Florence and Rome, and the restaurant’s chefs make all of their pasta in-house, offering a menu that Zach calls “fresh, authentic Italian with some of our family’s flair added to it.”
Dishes such as the eggplant caprese tower, an appetizer with layers of fresh mozzarella, tomato, crispy fried eggplant and basil pesto, number among guest favorites. Another winner is the create-your-own pasta bowl with a choice of four fresh pastas, hand-spun zucchini noodles or an imported gluten-free penne.
The red sauce is Brian and Larry’s father’s long-kept secret recipe, passed down and perfected for generations. “What I would like to cook for my family and friends is what I cook for other people,” Zach says.
Rounding out the menu are desserts such as tiramisu made from scratch by Kelly Leonardi, Larry’s wife and Zach’s mother, who also makes all of the pasta.
“My favorite’s the lemon bars,” Larry says. They are baked with homemade limoncello and finished with chocolate chips. Zach respectfully disagrees with his father’s choice. “The tiramisu’s gotta be the best one,” he insists.
Beverage. Brian runs the wine program at Firenze, which boasts more than 100 wines from Italy and California. His background in bartending, paired with a wine enthusiasm shared with his wife, Cheryl, gives him the knowledge to be the family expert. “By focusing [on California and Italy], I’m able to get deeper into areas and carry varieties that others may not,” he says. “It’s something I’ve had a personal passion about for probably 30 years, and it’s a hobby my wife and I plan vacations around.” With a wide price range, from $30 to $500 (and half-price bottles under $125 on Wednesday evenings), guests can design their own food-and-drink experience.
For a digestif, Kelly’s limoncello is offered alongside “cello” flavors such as orange, Ruby Red grapefruit, lemon- lime, coconut-infused key lime and orange creamsicle. And this summer, Firenze will debut its Peroni beer garden, an outdoor seating area behind the restaurant that will feature live music on Fridays and Saturdays, starting May 4.
Décor. The upscale-casual vibe of Firenze lends itself to a comfortable, yet elevated, Italian dining experience. The bar is next to a fireplace outfitted with leather chairs just right for sinking in. Photos of Italy and Leonardi family mementos line the walls to add to the cozy feel. One such memento is a framed wine list featuring make-us-nostalgic $3 bottles. “My dad bartended at Velleggia’s,” Larry says. “It’s a little bit of family history.” His father, now 77, is at the restaurant frequently and has even been known to roll up his sleeves and wash dishes in the back when service gets hectic.
In the wood-beamed dining rooms, tables sit close together for an intentional homey feel. The walls are decked with authentic Venetian masks, while an intricate, glass-blown chandelier from Murano hangs above.
Final Verdict. Ristorante Firenze is a place to get to know, like Italian cousins who bring the personality and the pasta. Step into this cozy home of a restaurant and enjoy a tradition-rich meal more upscale than any Sunday supper. Bella.
I’ve had the pleasure of eating there a few times. In fact, once about 3 years ago, I had just gotten back from a father-son trip to Italy and had lunch there the very next day. It felt like I hadn’t left our motherland
Wish the Leonardis continued success for many years.