Leonardo's isn't going to make it onto any critical best-of lists anytime soon, with a menu of passable Italian dishes dressed up with bells and whistles that aren't fooling anyone into thinking the food is better than it actually is. (Pine nuts! Dried cranberries!) The place is mediocre, but inoffensively so—and considering that Leonardo's is situated in a space formerly home to restaurants that actually were offensive (the short-lived tapas joint Graze, and before that Nina's Place), this actually is a backhanded endorsements of sorts. Simply put: Leonardo's is the best restaurant to ever occupy 939 NW 10th Avenue.
Leonardo's has entirely re-vamped the interior of the space, and it's an improvement. From the outside, the dining room looks like a funhouse hall of mirrors, as it's been subdivided with a row of booths down the middle. Large hanging lights cap off an atmosphere of vaguely corporate classiness.
The menu's broadly generic Italian scope ranges from pasta to pizza to pork chops, mostly standard Americanized dishes which are, I suspect, exactly what many diners are looking for. The pizza is unspectacular—thick, doughy crust, a spectrum of generic ingredients—and pricey for the size and quality. (A 13-inch cheese pie will run you $12, while a combo meat pizza tops out at $22.) Not to mention that the inclusion of a pie called the "Maui Porker" (Canadian bacon and pineapple) in an Italian restaurant draws the credibility of the whole affair into question. The "Sedona Sun" pizza comes with a pesto sauce, and is littered haphazardly with pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes, a combination that, by my highly scientific calculations, wore out its welcome in 1998.
Well-cooked duck is one of the reasons I'll never again be a vegetarian, and Leonardo's does a nice job with their house duck dish, marinated and cooked to medium rare, sliced and layered against a bed of forest-mushroom risotto. The risotto was generously studded with mushrooms, but its gummy texture made eating it a chore, and the accompanying pine nuts and dried cranberries were unwelcome and unnecessary. The Anjou pear salad was a gimmicky, scattershot affair: raspberry vinaigrette, candied walnuts, more dried cranberries, all bracketed by two large chunks of under-poached, oddly-colored pear.
Our service was spot on throughout the meal, friendly and encouraging ("Great choice! You ordered all of our best dishes!"), which left me feeling a tad betrayed when the check arrived and I realized that our waitress' friendly "What kind of salad would you like with your meal?" really translated to "Your meal comes with a house salad, but I would like to trick you into ordering a more expensive salad, for which I will then charge you a few extra bucks." Crafty waitress! Fool me once....
Portland is a tough town for restaurants, thanks in part to relatively low meal costs across the board: It's hard to recommend that someone drop $18 on a mediocre pork chop when the same amount of money will get them in the door at some of the best restaurants in town. But if you compare Leonardo's to Nina's Place, which used to occupy the same building (instead of, say, Ken's Artisan Pizza, which serves up some of the best pizza in town), Leo-nardo's comes out all right after all.