It feels almost inappropriate to ask Il Leone’s chef/owner, Ben Wexler-Waite, if he plans to take his summer-only Peaks Island pizza business year-round. Asking seems rude in the same way as inquiring when a novelist’s new book will finally be finished, or asking a newly married person when they plan to have kids. Just voicing the question implies inadequacy – as if what the person is doing now isn’t quite good enough.

But here, none of that is true. I ask because what Wexler-Waite and his tiny gang of staff are up to on Peaks Island is fantastic. I ask because I, like almost anyone who has made the 15-minute ferry journey across Casco Bay for one of Il Leone’s blister-speckled, naturally leavened pies, want more.

“I’ll be honest with you. That’s definitely something I’ve been seriously exploring, trying to decide if I want to keep this as a seasonal business or take the leap and go brick-and-mortar,” Wexler-Waite said. “We’re just winding down our second season now, though, and while we’re nearing that crossroad, I want to wait until things quiet down this fall to delve into it further. But if I did do something else, I’d have to do it in a way that preserves the unique outdoor, wood-fired experience.”

Indeed, the idyllic locale plays a big part in why a meal at Il Leone feels special. There is something joyful about sauntering down Island Avenue to Greenwood Garden Park that gives the restaurant its name, claiming one of the shaded picnic tables and placing your order at the “front-of-house tent.” This copse of trees along the border of the park probably isn’t a place you’d visit otherwise, and unless you’re a Peaks islander, you’d be unlikely to stumble upon Wexler-Waite’s pizzeria by accident.

In some ways, it reminds me of other Maine destination-dining experiences like Crown Jewel on Great Diamond Island, or even The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Getting there isn’t necessarily half the fun, but Il Leone’s intentional remoteness evokes a sense of occasion that infuses your visit. That goes double if you take your scratch-made pizza – fresh from its 60-second (maximum) sauna in the 850 degree Forza Forni oven – and trek down a scrawny wooded trail to a nearby sandy beach.

Il Leone owner and chef Ben Wexler-Waite, left, and Luke Gernert assemble pizzas in an outdoor kitchen. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Yet Il Leone isn’t all about the scenery. No, here you’ll find slow-fermented dough that Wexler-Waite transforms into crisp, airy pies topped with Italian and locally sourced components. And if you visited last summer, you should come again. This year, the salads, like the peppery rughetta e parmigiano ($14.50), are dressed with a more cautious hand, not drowned as they sometimes were previously. But more to the point, the pies have become more consistently excellent, with a finer network of evenly sized black bubbles, or “leoparding” (my new favorite word and a balanced ratio of dough to toppings.

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Take the spicy Diavola ($19.50), a riff on a pepperoni pizza prepared with fresh mozzarella, plump disks of uncured, nitrite-free Calabrian salami and Il Leone’s three-ingredient homemade marinara. The version I tasted earlier this month emerged from the oven with a billow of steam and smoke, and counterintuitively, got better as it cooled off at the table. “I’ve eaten a lot of pizza, and I could still eat a Diavola every day,” Wexler-Waite said. Count me in.

If the Diavola and its sprinkle of red pepper flakes hit your tastebuds with a little too much fiery oomph, there is Gelato Fiasco gelato ($7.25) on Il Leone’s menu to cool you off. Go for either the traditional vanilla or the rather suggestive caramel-and-fudge-brownie “Netflix and Chill” flavor.

You won’t need the cooldown for Il Leone’s other pizzas, especially the Burratina ($21.95), which thanks to the intact, baseball-sized lobe of artisanal cream-filled burrata deposited at its center, does a terrific job of mellowing out its own flavors. If you’re wondering how to eat this magnificent pizza, you’re in good company. I overheard two other tables asking what to do with the ball of cheese. “You can rip into it and spread it around, cut it, whatever you like,” a staffer told one of the tables when she dropped off their pie. Wexler-Waite himself has an even better way of guiding diners: “We give them a knife and a fork and just tell them to follow their primal instincts,” he said.

Il Leone’s L’estate pizza with local heirloom tomatoes, local organic basil, mozzarella, Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil, Pecorino cheese and black pepper. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

My own party may have taken this advice too literally as we ripped apart our favorite pie, L’Estate ($21.50). Named after the Italian word for summer, this limited-run pizza appears only during the height of Maine’s tomato season, when Bowdoinham’s Stonecipher Farm is able to send Il Leone its sweetest vine-ripened cherry tomatoes along with the restaurant’s standing order for a forest’s worth of organic basil.

Wexler-Waite tells me that this pie, with its funky-fragrant duo of pecorino romano cheese and cracked black pepper, reminds him of a traditional cacio e pepe pasta. I can see what he means, but for me, it recalls grill-marked slices of garlicky Catalan “pan con tomate” (or “pa amb tomaquet”). Either way, if you get out to Il Leone before mid-September, it’s a must-order.

If you miss tomato season, Wexler-Waite intends to keep Il Leone chugging along until approximately the second week of October. I’d also be willing to wager that he doesn’t make a big move to the mainland anytime soon, nor will he convert the business into a food truck that operates from his existing prep trailer. What really convinced me was the way he spoke about the importance of open air and his luck in connecting with the Lions Club of Peaks Island at just the right time.

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“They saw this as a win-win for the community, where residents would have more dining options, and we’d create more good-paying jobs on the island and get to be outside,” Wexler-Waite said. “And really, we did not build this business to schlep. We built it to be on Peaks.”

Luke Gernert with a wood-fired pizza he’s just pulled from the 850 degree oven at the outdoor, seasonal Il Leone. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ****

WHERE: 2 Garden Pl., Peaks Island, Portland. 207-370-1471. illeone.me

SERVING: Wednesday to Sunday (May through October), 12 noon – 3 p.m. and 4:30 – 8 p.m. (or sell-out, which occurs rarely)

PRICE RANGE: Salads and antipasti: $14.50-$17.95. Pizza: $17.50-$21.95

NOISE LEVEL: Gentle Vesuvian rumble

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VEGETARIAN: Some dishes

GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes (including a gluten-free dough)

RESERVATIONS: None

BAR: BYOB

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No

BOTTOM LINE: “Colby graduate returns to Maine, teaches himself how to make pizza and opens a seasonal restaurant” sounds like the prelude to a cautionary tale, but owner and chief pizzaiolo Ben Wexler-Waite has done nearly everything right at Il Leone on Peaks Island. It starts with the incontrovertibly beautiful surroundings: a wooded park next to seasonal bungalows, an expansive view across Casco Bay, and a secluded sandy beach. But Il Leone succeeds beyond the scope of its setting. Pizzas here are fantastic. Most incorporate imported San Marzano tomatoes, Sicilian olive oil and fresh dairy products from top U.S. producers. Some pizzas, like the limited-run L’Estate and the zucchini-topped Zucche ($21.50), add Maine produce to the mix to tremendous effect. Snag a bottle of wine before you hop on the ferry from mainland Portland or buy a bottle at Hannigan’s Island Market when you arrive on Peaks Island, then settle in for a few slices of finely blistered, Neapolitan-style pizza, a fresh arugula salad, and an evening (or afternoon) of pure Vacationland bliss.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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