On busy nights, the tiny vestibule that fronts the restrooms at Rancho Bernardo's Leonardo Ristorante and Pizzeria becomes an impromptu waiting room and wine bar.
That patrons agree to wait in this cramped, unlikely spot is a testament to the restaurant's menu and cooking, which by and large seem worth the time spent. That a glass of wine is on the house, meanwhile, speaks well for the management's desire to alleviate the discomfort of the waiting clientele.
And that the situation exists at all makes most obvious the limitations of modern, strip center, storefront restaurants, which 15 years ago were the wave of the future and now seem an inescapable part of the landscape. Spaces of this sort do not allow for additions, and expansion into a neighboring space is out of the question unless another establishment moves out.
In the specific case of Leonardo, this means that the restaurant is limited to a single, narrow dining room, given an illusion of greater breadth by mirrors and containing the absolute number of tables that can be jammed in under the red, white and green awnings and the few but tasteful artworks.
The service is cheerful, perhaps because servers feel confident about the plates they constantly hustle out of the kitchen. The menu, while not vegetarian, leans somewhat in that direction, and the vegetables that enter variously into the antipasto, the pizzas and some of the entrees seem wonderfully fresh and well-handled.
The menu takes a much more ambitious tone than is usual at informal, family-style restaurants of this type. In addition to meatless antipasto plates (wrapped in plastic, these assortments of grilled, marinated eggplant, peppers and other veggies constantly whirl past on a revolving display case in the dining room), the appetizer list includes mussels steamed in marinara sauce; bocconcini , or "little mouthfuls," of fried mozzarella; prosciutto and melon; tiny fried squid and a dressy dish of tortellini in a sauce of reduced cream thickened with Parmesan.
The pasta list revives the old classic of spaghetti and meatballs, which for some years seemed in danger of disappearing from new restaurant menus; this is included with such other old stand-bys as spaghetti with garlic and olive oil (too often overlooked), linguine with pesto, ravioli in meat sauce and manicotti stuffed with ham and several cheeses.
Less familiar are pennette (small, quill-shaped macaroni) in a lavish treatment of smoked salmon, caviar and cream sauce; the fettuccine Leonardo, which dresses the noodles with sauteed shrimp, scallops and mussels and a tarragon cream, and the linguine al pescatore , which tumbles the pasta with shrimp, squid, mussels and tomato sauce. The spaghetti compagnola adds cream, mushrooms and extra garlic to a standard meat sauce, and the tasty result seems like a robust, rustic adaptation of the classic sauce bolognese .
The pizzas are sufficiently popular that the restaurant also sells them from a window on the pavement; in the dining room, the light-crusted pies are set atop holders that contain lighted candles, which--at least in theory--keeps them warm.
The house special (described by the menu as world famous, no less) is rather admirable, and tops the molten mozzarella with roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, zucchini, eggplant and, of all things, broccoli. This is surprisingly good, but for the veggie-disdaining there is an all-meat pie that supplements the usual sausage and pepperoni with Canadian bacon and chopped beef.
Entrees include a classic beef filet pizzaiola finished with tomatoes, garlic and oregano; swordfish in tomato sauce made pungent by capers, oregano and olives; salmon bedded on spinach, the whole doused with lemon butter; the usual veal parmigiana, piccata and Marsala, and grilled chicken breast with mushrooms and garlic. A plate of crisply finished, home made Italian sausage with peppers, onions and tomatoes is hearty, warmingly old fashioned and quite delicious.
16705 Bernardo Center Dr., Rancho Bernardo
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly
Cost: Pizza and entrees from $4.95 to $13.95. Dinner for two with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $40