It seems almost inappropriate to ask Il Leone chef/owner Ben Wexler-Waite if he plans to run his summer-only Peaks Island pizzeria business year-round. Asking seems rude in the same way as asking when a novelist’s new book will finally be finished or asking a newly married person when they plan to have children. Merely voicing the question implies a mismatch – as if what the person is doing now isn’t good enough.
But here, none of that is true. I ask because what Wexler-Waite and his small group of employees are doing on Peaks Island is fantastic. I ask because, like almost everyone who’s taken the 15-minute ferry ride across Casco Bay for one of Il Leone’s naturally speckled sourdough pies, I want more.
“I’ll be honest with you. It’s definitely something I’ve seriously explored, trying to decide if I want to keep it as a seasonal business or take the plunge and go brick and mortar,” Wexler-Waite said. “We’re just finishing our second season now, and as we approach this crossroads, I want to wait until things calm down this fall to pursue this further. But if I was doing anything else, I would have to do it in a way that preserves the unique experience of an outdoor wood fire.
Indeed, the idyllic location plays a big part in why a meal at Il Leone is special. There’s something joyful about strolling down Island Avenue to the Greenwood Garden Park that gives the restaurant its name, claiming one of the shaded picnic tables, and placing your order at the “front tent.” This grove of trees along the border of the park is probably not a place you would otherwise visit, and unless you’re a Peaks Islander, you’re unlikely to stumble upon Wexler-Waite’s Pizzeria. by accident.
In some ways it reminds me of other dining experiences in Maine like Crown Jewel on Great Diamond Island, or even The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Getting there isn’t necessarily half the fun, but Il Leone’s intentional remoteness evokes a sense of occasion that pervades your visit. It doubles if you take your homemade pizza—fresh out of its 60-second (max) sauna in the 850-degree Forza Forni oven—and walk down a meager wooded path to a nearby sandy beach.
However, Il Leone is not only a question of landscape. No, here you’ll find a slow-fermented dough that Wexler-Waite transforms into crispy, airy pies filled with Italian and local ingredients. And if you visited last summer, you should come back. This year, salads, like the peppery rughetta e parmigiano ($14.50), are dressed with a more careful hand, not drowned as they sometimes were before. But more specifically, the pies got better and better, with a finer network of evenly sized black bubbles, or “leopard” (my new favorite word and a balanced ratio of dough to fillings.
Take the Spicy Diavola ($19.50), a riff on pepperoni pizza made with fresh mozzarella, plump disks of unsalted, nitrite-free Calabrian salami, and Il Leone’s homemade three-ingredient marinara. The version I tasted earlier month Came out of the oven with a wave of steam and smoke and unexpectedly improved as it cooled at the table. “I ate a lot of pizza and I could still eat a Diavola every day,” Wexler-Waite said. Count on me.
If the Diavola and its sprinkle of red pepper flakes hit your taste buds a little too fiercely, there’s Gelato Fiasco gelato ($7.25) on Il Leone’s menu to cool you down. Go for the traditional vanilla or the rather suggestive “Netflix and Chill” Caramel Fudge Brownie flavor.
You won’t need the cooldown for Il Leone’s other pizzas, especially the Burratina ($21.95), which, thanks to the intact baseball-sized lobe of artisanal burrata stuffed with the cream deposited in its center, does a wonderful job of softening hers. the flavours. If you’re wondering how to eat that gorgeous pizza, you’re in good company. I overheard two other tables asking what to do with the cheese ball. “You can tear it up and roll it out, cut it, whatever you want,” said a staff member at one of the tables as she set down her pie. Wexler-Waite himself has an even better way of guiding diners: “We give them a knife and fork and just tell them to follow their primal instincts,” he said.
My own party may have taken that advice too literally as we tear up our favorite pie, The Estate ($21.50). Named after the Italian word for summer, this limited-run pizza only appears at the height of Maine’s tomato season, when Bowdoinham’s Stonecipher Farm is able to send its tomatoes to Il Leone. sweetest vine-ripened cherries with the restaurant’s standing order for a forest’s worth. organic basil.
Wexler-Waite tells me this pie, with its funky, fragrant duo of pecorino romano cheese and cracked black pepper, reminds her of a traditional cacio e pepe pastry. I can see what he means, but to me it reminds of grilled slices of garlicky Catalan “pan con tomate” (or “pa amb tomaquet”). Either way, if you’re heading to Il Leone before mid-September, this is a must order.
If you miss tomato season, Wexler-Waite intends to run Il Leone until around the second week of October. I’d also be willing to bet he won’t be making a big move to the mainland anytime soon, nor will he be converting the business into a food truck that operates from its existing prep trailer. What really convinced me was the way he talked about the importance of the outdoors and his chance to connect with the Peaks Island Lions Club at the right time.
“They saw this as a win-win for the community, where residents would have more dining options, and we would create more high-paying jobs on the island and could be off,” Wexler said. – Waite. “And really, we didn’t build this business for schlep. We built it to be on Peaks.
WHERE: 2 Garden Pl., Peaks Island, Portland. 207-370-1471. illeone.me
PORTION: Wednesday to Sunday (May to October), 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. (or full, which rarely happens)
PRICE SCALE: Salads and antipasti: $14.50 – $17.95. Pizza: $17.50 to $21.95
NOISE LEVEL: Soft Vesuvian rumble
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
GLUTEN FREE: A few dishes (including a gluten-free pasta)
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Nope
BOTTOM LINE: ‘Colby graduate returns to Maine, learns to make pizza and opens seasonal restaurant’ sounds like the prelude to a cautionary tale, but owner and chef pizza maker Ben Wexler-Waite has done almost everything right at Il Leone on Peaks Island. It starts with the surroundings of indisputable beauty: a wooded park next to seasonal bungalows, a breathtaking view of Casco Bay and a secluded sandy beach. But Il Leone succeeds beyond the scope of his frame. The pizzas here are fantastic. Most contain tomatoes imported from San Marzano, Sicilian olive oil and fresh dairy products from the best American producers. Some pizzas, like the limited-edition L’Estate and Zucche Topped with Zucchini ($21.50), add Maine produce to the mix to terrific effect. Grab a bottle of wine before you hop on the ferry from mainland Portland or buy a bottle at Hannigan’s Island Market when you arrive on Peaks Island, then settle in for a few slices of thinly blistered Neapolitan-style pizza, a salad of fresh arugula, and an evening (or afternoon) of pure Vacationland bliss.
Andrew Ross has written about food and restaurants in New York and the UK. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He recently received five Critics’ Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Dine Out Maine: At the Costa Rican-Caribbean-inspired Café Louis, hard work pays off (in 4½ stars)