Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

Leonardo’s By the Slice served its first pizza pie 45 years ago when Midtown wasn’t yet under the looming threat of luxury high-rises. A landmark of an older town, Leonardo’s sits in its inaugural spot at 1245 W University Ave, the aroma of fresh, cheesy pizza enticing unsuspecting passersby.Inside the pizzeria, the large, vertical windows cast natural light on the wooden booths and orange-and-green walls, which feature homages to the past like old skateboards used as punk art canvases and black-and-white prints of Gainesville’s music scene. Most likely, alternative rock band Marcy Playground is playing in the background. Even more likely, the cashier is singing along to Nirvana with her pink-haired co-worker: “You’re face to face/With the man who sold the world.” 

Today, Leonardo’s existence is precarious. In Aug. 2016, the UF Foundation purchased the land under Leonardo’s and its joint business, Bistro 1245. Two years later, UF announced plans to demolish the restaurants, as well as the neighboring Kangaroo gas station, to construct a new building for its School of Music.

But nothing fazes co-owner Brian Johnson, who started running the business in 2017 after working at the restaurant for 25 years. The 46-year-old takes a laid-back approach to his work, like sipping wine as he reviews a January day’s to-do list, which includes everything from signing checks and setting up cash drawers to making and serving pizza.
Though the stress of running a restaurant can be overwhelming, Johnson still enjoys the art of pizza-making, especially tossing the dough.

“We’re just a local place trying to make it,” Johnson said. “When they put [in] all these apartments, they also bring in a lot of corporate places, which takes business away from smaller local people. It’s such a shame to see the landscape change. It’s Gainesville, Florida — not ‘Any City, U.S.A.’”

“When you’re spinning the dough and you see a kid smile, that’s a pleasure to me,” said Johnson, who discovered his passion for food when he got his first job at Burger King at 14 years old.

You can expect classic pizzeria staples at Leonardo’s, like spinach and tomato, pepperoni and veggie pizza, steamy rollsand marinara sauce. But on “Wild Card” Tuesdays, Johnson and his employees like to experiment, offering creations like a cheeto-topped pizza that was popular among college students.

“That’s the beauty of the Wild Card,” he said. “It keeps things interesting.”

Yet in the past year, Johnson said revenue has decreased by 25 percent. He blames the changing culture of Gainesville. Students, he said, aren’t willing to cross the street beyond The Standard or explore outside their comfort zone.

Illustration by Ashrita Budhara

“We’re just a local place trying to make it,” Johnson said. “When they put [in] all these apartments, they also bring in a lot of corporate places, which takes business away from smaller local people. It’s such a shame to see the landscape change. It’s Gainesville, Florida — not ‘Any City, U.S.A.’”

If he wants Leonardo’s to survive, Johnson will have to face the challenge of finding and purchasing a new location for the restaurant when its lease ends in 2020. When asked whether he thinks it’ll be worth it, Johnson shrugged and scanned the interior of the restaurant.

“What else am I gonna do? Be a mailman?” he says before taking another sip of wine. •


Leonardo’s By the Slice

1245 W University Ave, Gainesville, FL 32601

• • •

Chicken Cordon
Bleu Pizza

 
Ingredients
  • 12 ounces of pizza dough
  • chicken breast
  • shredded cheese (mozzarella and swiss)
  • alfredo sauce
  • italian breadcrumbs
  • diced ham
  • salt, pepper and rosemary

Instructions
  1. Get 12 ounces of pizza dough (tip: you can buy it at Leonardo’s).
  2. Preheat your oven to 400°F.
  3. Stretch that bad boy nice & thin. Use a rolling pin if you need to. If you can toss it, cool. Get it to 14 inches wide.
  4. Place it on your favorite home pizza peel. In the meantime, bake some chicken with salt, pepper, & rosemary. Let it cool for the pizza.
  5. Spread alfredo evenly for the base, pull the chicken & top that sauce with it. Then some shredded swiss, some diced ham & some shredded mozz. Remember!! Less is more.
  6. Top with italian bread crumbs & slide onto your pizza stone in the oven. Cook until crisp on the bottom & enjoy. •

Recipe courtesy of Brian Johnson: