The bustling seaside town of Brighton has a reputation as a young, vibrant and slightly alternative place, teeming with interesting independent eateries. Its quieter neighbour Hove has typically been seen as a more staid, traditional retirement town with a rather more limited choice for the curious diner. That is changing, however, as more and more restaurants spring up along the high street. On this trip, my dining partner visited Leonardo’s, a longstanding family run Sicilian Italian restaurant in Hove’s centre, as recommended by my grandparents whom we were treating to lunch. Arriving at 1pm on a stormy Saturday in early January, we hadn’t expected the restaurant to be especially busy, but we were surprised by just how quiet it was – there were just three other tables occupied in the spacious dining room. The white walls and glass roofed conservatory give the restaurant a very light, airy feel and the black and white photographs adorning the walls showcase its twenty odd year history. Despite the dining room being almost empty, the atmosphere was still warm and relaxed and we were happy to linger over our lunch without feeling at all awkward. One rather more unusual feature, which couldn’t go without a mention, are the toilets – with floor to ceiling marble tiles, colour changing mood lighting, and piped background music, they’re quite an experience and almost a reason to visit Leonardo’s in themselves.
To start, my dining partner opted for the bruschetta, which he thoroughly enjoyed – the thinly sliced baguette was crisply toasted and topped with a brilliantly fresh mixture of chopped tomatoes, garlic and basil, drizzled with rich extra virgin olive oil. My grandmother’s starter of fried mozzarella in breadcrumbs went down very well – the smooth, creamy mozzarella was melted within its breadcrumb shell, and although the advertised spicy tomato salsa seemed to be absent, the accompanying finely sliced red onion brought a pleasantly contrasting sharpness to cut through the richness of the cheese. My grandfather had hoped to begin with grilled sardines, which were advertised as a special on the large blackboard on the wall above our table, and was most disappointed when the waiter apologetically informed us that the specials were not available in the post-Christmas period. In the end, my grandfather was relatively pleased with his second choice of garlic mushrooms, but I did find it a shame that the restaurant hadn’t taken the time to rub the blackboard clean or put up some other notice explaining that the specials weren’t offered at that time. I also went for the garlic mushrooms, and in my view they were quite delicious – the sautéed mushrooms were nutty and wonderfully juicy, while the addition of cherry tomatoes brought a great burst of sweetness to the dish. In a surprise departure from the menu description, the mushrooms and tomatoes were served on a toasted ciabbata roll – although not entirely unwelcome, this unexpected extra made for a rather heavier starter than I had anticipated and provoked criticism from my grandfather, who insisted that this wasn’t usually how the dish was served.
For main course, my dining partner’s Calzone pizza was generally well received – the filling of salty ham, earthy mushrooms and creamy mozzarella was generously portioned, although we were slightly surprised to find the tomato sauce also inside the pizza, rather than served at the side as advertised (and as is traditional with a Calzone). My grandmother’s Napoletana pizza was another impressive main – the thin base was well cooked, with crisp crust but pleasingly soft, doughy centre, and it was topped with plenty of salty anchovies and juicy capers. My grandfather went for the Penne alla Amatriciana – a gargantuan bowl of penne pasta, cooked al dente and smothered in a rich tomato sauce with salty bacon, and a invigorating kick of chilli. My own main course was described on the menu as “Spinach gnocchi with fresh Italian sausage, cherry tomatoes and spicy broccoli”. The gnocchi were dainty little dumplings with a soft, squidgy texture with the addition of spinach giving them a refreshingly bitter bite, the morsels of Italian sausage were rich and meaty, and I just loved the sweetness of the cherry tomatoes. So while most of the elements were just as described, and really rather tasty, I did feel slightly short changed when it came to the broccoli. I had been expecting actual florets of broccoli, probably just slightly blanched to retain their crunch and give some texture to the dish, and most likely spiced with chilli flakes or similar. Instead, the entire dish was coated with a sort of sticky, green sauce – presumably pureed spiced broccoli. Although the taste was not unpleasant, texture-wise it felt rather cloying and almost gave me the impression that I was eating a bowl of green baby food.
We were all rather full by the end of our main courses, so we decided to share two desserts between the four of us. The choice was made rather more complicated, however, by the fact that we were presented with two different dessert menus. My dining partner and grandparents each had menus that included banoffee pie and traditional tiramisu, while my menu had no banoffee and a rather more exotic sounding white chocolate and coconut tiramisu. In addition, my grandfather had hoped to have his favourite dessert, Cassata Siciliana, but this didn’t appear on either of the menus we were given (despite still being listed on Leonardo’s online menu). In the end, my grandparents shared a tiramisu – which turned out to be the traditional kind (except that it was served in a wine glass), while my dining partner and I went for the hot chocolate soufflé. Presented in the centre of an enormous blue glass plate, accompanied by a perfectly spherical scoop of vanilla ice-cream served on a funky bent-handled spoon, the soufflé certainly looked like something special. Sadly, we found it to be a bit on the heavy side, a touch under-baked, and with a slightly eggy taste detracting from the chocolate flavour.
As for drinks, lunch with the grandparents isn’t the sort of meal that calls for detailed study of the wine list, but Leonardo’s does offer a good value house wine at just £2.95 for a small glass. There’s the usual array of soft drinks, and these are also relatively reasonably priced. Our quibbles with the food were for the most part due to descriptive discrepancies rather than deficiencies of taste, and Leonardo’s is otherwise a lovely local eatery. The service throughout our meal was excellent. Our attentive waiter was quick to offer freshly ground black pepper and grated parmesan with the savoury courses, and his warm, friendly nature made us feel truly welcome. In terms of value for money, Leonardo’s isn’t exactly cheap – two and a half courses, soft drink and tip came to just under £25 per head. But despite our issues with the menu, we still had an enjoyable lunch, resulting in a decent overall score of three Forks-Up.Leonardo’s Restaurant 55 Church Road Hove East Sussex BN3 2BD T: 01273 328 888