Restaurant review: Leone's Pizza

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

March came in like a lion with the opening of Leone's Pizza. And after visiting that overachieving little newcomer, I went out as a fan.

Leone's ("leone" is Italian for "lion"; you'll spot lion images inside) is a tiny-but-tidy North Side pizza shop distinguished by the mad skills and volcanic energy of Ryan LaRose, Leone's owner and whirling dervish of a one-man-band chef. His presence guarantees that if you dine at one of the six utilitarian tables in this carryout-oriented establishment - be forewarned, it's like eating in someone's kitchen - you'll bear witness to the motto affixed to Leone's door: "There's a show in the dough."

Don't expect LaRose to exhibit his full arsenal of flashy moves when you visit. He's a former member of the United States Pizza Team and a serial award-winner in "acrobatic dough-tossing" competitions whose circus-like dough-twirling abilities have landed himonThe Today Show, Good Morning Americaand Jimmy Kimmel Live.

But if you pop in on a busy night - that's most nights - LaRose's dexterous pizza spinning, frenetic cooking pace, blazing (but controlled) sauté pan flare-ups and amusing kitchen banter (which could include radio sing-alongs) will constitute a show so entertaining that you'll forget - okay, willalmost forget - that this humble place has no liquor license.

Of course, the proof is in the pizza. Because the specialty pies I tried stand out, I'll start with those.

The Grandma's pizza ($20) is an unusual-but-crowd-pleasing vegetarian beauty. It's a 16-inch square pie (that's big) with lively, homemade tomato sauce forming diagonal stripes atop creamy housemade mozzarella cheese cooked until it forms intermittent golden-brown bubbles.

Sprinkles of basil, garlic, and parmesan cheese add depth, but the crowning glory is a marvelous, thin-yet-sturdy crust that is raised along the edge like delicious fencing and crackles between your teeth. Emphasizing execution and simple, high-quality ingredients, it's an American pizza with an Italian aesthetic.

Restrained amounts of fennel-seeded sausage crumbles, good pepperoni and salami, plus onions, green peppers and mozzarella are encased between two pretty crusts braided where they join together around the crispy edge of the huge Stuffed Pizza ($28). It looks like a dessert pie, and it tastes like one of the best calzones you'll ever eat.

If you order a "regular" pizza ($12 to $21), you'll get one of the better New York-style crusts in town - meaning crisp, medium-thin-but-hefty wedges with a toasty and puffed outer ring. The Carnivore ($19; crisp bacon strips, sausage, pepperoni and salami) and the Herbivore ($17; spinach, tomato slices, canned olives, onions, green peppers) are solid choices.

In addition to pizza, there are terrific - and terrifically priced - sides of broccoli or spinach sauteed with olive oil, garlic, white wine and chili flakes ($4) and dense, sausage-enriched homemade meatballs topped with melted mozzarella and delightfully acidic house marinara sauce ($5). Like the $14 Penne alla Vodka (impressive even though its peas were missing), these dishes could've come from a serious Italian restaurant.

The good-tasting Caesar Salad ($7) is a qualified success. It's made with crisp romaine, shaved parmesan cheese and oregano-and-garlic-flavored croutons that look and crunch like diced toast. The problem: because the salad is served on a plate and the enjoyably brash, creamy, anchovy-flaunting dressing served on the side is so thick, you practically have to paint each bite with dressing.

If that sounds too problematic - here I'll paraphrase a famous line from "The Godfather" - leave the salad, but take the cannoli. With its spot-on homemade sweet ricotta cheese filling, chocolate chips, chocolate sauce and crisp pastry shell, it's a little taste of Little Italy for a little price ($3) from the little new pizzeria that could.

Leone's Pizza

5413 Sinclair Rd., North Side