From the Kitchen: Celebrate a hot meal with a cold drink

We had a fantastic dining experience at Leonoro’s Spaghetti House a couple weeks ago. The family-owned and -operated restaurant was established on Broad Street, in Charleston, in 1915. Several decades later, due to interstate construction, it moved to its current East Washington Street location.

The restaurant recently celebrated 100 years in business. Do you think the owners might be doing something right?

The occasion was a buffet for more than a dozen family members in honor of a senior family member’s birthday.

Through making arrangements, we learned that a buffet wasn’t a part of Leonoro’s standard service. It didn’t stop them; the staff were happy to oblige.

The menu items were chosen from the familiar dishes on the house menu, as well as those items we hadn’t before enjoyed on our many trips to eat there. It was a chance to try everything.

On that Saturday, the restaurant opened for us prior to its regular starting hour. Staff closed the door, hung a “private party” sign outside and brought on the parade of food.

And what a layout! We started with tossed garden salad with homemade dressings. Anyone remember the one-of-a-kind special red dressing that, in the very old days when their father was in the restaurant, was on the table, generally contained in assorted empty ketchup and sauce bottles?

And the perfectly prepared array went up from there. The list was long and included plenty of colorful vegetable additions on platters for the salad; a huge bowl of what looked like a lifetime supply of al dente spaghetti; separate bowls of marinara sauce, Italian peppers and meatballs; a huge tray of veal Parmesan; a dish of cooked tender bell peppers and onions with spicy sausage; soft and flavorful cheese manicotti in double rows in a baking pan; and moist chicken cacciatore in the restaurant’s mushroom sauce.

The cacciatore was served in an attractive, oversized paella-like heavy iron cooking vessel. I would have gladly arm-wrestled the Leonoro brothers for possession.

Baskets of Italian bread with the just-right crisp crust and perfect softness inside from Kristi Anne’s Bakery filled the table. Some slices were plain, some with garlic butter, of course.

Dessert came next and yes, everyone made room for a delicate, whipped cream and cocoa tiramisu, spumoni ice cream and tubes of cannoli.

Leonoro’s doesn’t make the cannoli ahead and let it sit or stick it in the freezer. Chefs fill the crisp shells with a sweet and creamy ricotta mixture at the time of the order.

Al, Joe and Mike Leonoro pulled out all the stops to make the meal special. Our server, Kelly, was always on top of everything, seeing that we had what was needed.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this,” said Joe Leonoro, speaking of the buffet style set-up.

Certainly over the years Leonoro’s has routinely served multiple large parties of all types, but usually from separate orders; not with everything stretched out at one time on long tables. The owners wanted to make sure there was enough food. Enough food?

To that end, Joe Leonoro came out of the kitchen to check on us. “I want to be sure the food was right,” he said.

Each Leonoro involved was anxious that the event go smoothly and more to the point, the food be served hot.

“We make it our goal that every day and with every order the food is hot,” Joe Leonoro remarked. “Food can be as delicious as the day is long, but if it’s served cold, that’s no good.”

Kudos to the Leonoro family for providing our group a joyous and memorable meal. Today’s recipe fits into a party or fun gathering such as ours, but — don’t tell Joe Leonoro — it should be served cold.

Champagne is named as the bubbly provider, but it can be Asti spumante, Prosecco or even non-alcohol sparkling red grape juice.

A simple stirring together of four ingredients is a good start for any of your celebrations.

Reach Judy Grigoraci at judy.g@suddenlink.net.

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