When the Ramblr crew announced the South Yarra casual fine diner’s closure, and its replacement – a New York-style slice shop – earlier this year, chef Nick Stanton plotted an American pizza pilgrimage.
He came upon Scarr’s, a retro pizzeria on New York’s Lower East Side milling grains in-house and pouring natty wines.
The tagline at Leo’s by the Slice is “Pizza in the front, party out the back”, and Stanton says the vibe isn’t too different from The Old Pepper (another pizzeria that occupied the site in the ’90s). “Friends of ours, now in their mid-forties, would carry on there before and after clubbing.”
For Stanton and business partners Guy Bentley, Mark Catsburg and Jon Harper – who also run log-cabin party bar Leonard’s House of Love in South Yarra and the rollicking Leonardo’s Pizza Palace in Carlton – Leo completes their trilogy.
The fit-out is by Todd Vanneste of Weekdays Design Studio and nods to family-run pizza shops in the US in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There are a few stools and a couple of booths, and with the exception of the door handle (still embossed with “Ramblr”), the seemingly worn-in checkerboard floors, red tabletops and timber panelling have heyday Pizza Hut written all over them. But that’s where the resemblance stops.
Here, the dough is naturally leavened, made using a sourdough starter rather than commercial yeast, which Stanton says makes for a crispier base and strong and stretchy centre. The dough is designed for reheating – the 22-inch pies are three-quarter cooked, cooled, then finished off to order. Slices come out thin, crisp, piping hot and, most importantly, foldable – just like the paper plates they’re served on.
Stanton envisioned textbook New York-style toppings, and while the menu reads like any old slice shop – “cheese”, “pepperoni”, “mushroom” – the quality’s dialled up. He’s using That’s Amore mozzarella, purpose-made pepperoni from Gary’s Quality Meats and shiitake mushrooms grown in the Otways.
“I like eating artificial food, there’s something nostalgic about it,” Stanton says. “But do I think it’s right serving it, as a chef? No.”
Other toppings include meatlovers with black pudding, a tropical pineapple and jalapeno version, a vegan margherita, and a vegan riff on the hallowed Ramblr Chinese bolognaise pizza, subbing out the meat for pea protein. Thick-crust, rectangular Sicilian pizza is in the works, too, as are meatball subs and garlic bread.
The team hopes Leo’s will serve the Chapel Street strip well, particularly after dark. Slices are available until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We’ve been [at this spot] a few years now and we’re always struggling to find late-night – or even takeaway – food ourselves,” says Bentley. “Now you don’t have to go to Macca’s or KFC.”
A vending machine dispenses beer, soft drinks and Leo’s merch. Slink past it through a curved doorway and you’ll find a dark and moody bar decked out with a pool table, glowing Budweiser neon, and a bit of bench space.
The drinks list brims with two-dozen (mostly American) tinnies, plus house lager and Coopers Pale Ale on tap, starting at five bucks. A tight edit of lo-fi wines is full of strictly “user-friendly varietals”, Bentley says. Cocktail-wise, there’s a foamy Black Forest number with Jack Daniel’s; a boozy, Oreo-sprinkled frozen Irish Coffee (served in a paper cup); or go fresh with a Spritz, Sour or Negroni.
Leo’s by the Slice
363 Chapel Street, South Yarra
Wed to Sun 5pm–late
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on August 1, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.