It’s a Peaks Island Pizza Party All Summer Long at Il Leone

The alfresco oven turns out bubbly Neapolitan-style pies loaded up with Maine toppings.

Margherita, salami, asparagus, and cherry-tomato pizzas from Il Leone
Clockwise from top left: margherita, salami, asparagus, and cherry-tomato pizzas
By Will Grunewald
Photos by Cara Dolan
From our August 2023 issue

The Il Leone kitchen consists of a trailer, which serves as pantry, refrigerator, and prep station, and a wood-fired oven, which has two wheels and a tow hitch. They’re parked next to each other on the periphery of Peaks Island’s small downtown, in a shaded grove with 10 picnic tables beneath bistro lights strung from branches. That’s pretty much all there is to it — either a food truck without a truck or a restaurant without walls. And whether in spite of or precisely because of that operational minimalism, Il Leone is maximally good.

The sense of simplicity extends to the menu: pizzas that reflect a reverence for both Neapolitan tradition and the Maine farm-to-table ethos. Owner Ben Wexler-Waite’s naturally leavened dough, after just one minute in the 850-degree oven, comes out airy but chewy, bespeckled with char, and possessed of subtle sourdough tang. He makes tomato sauce with San Marzano tomatoes, imported from Italy. His cheeses come from specialty producers, foreign and domestic. And he gets most of the toppings — eggplant, basil, garlic scapes, lobster, zucchini — from around Maine.

Il Leone operates from May to October, and on a visit earlier this year, asparagus was in season. Wexler-Waite had sliced the stalks longways, into thin strips, and laid them among dollops of mozzarella. The crunch and the bittersweet grassiness of asparagus was a gentle counterpoint to the silky, creamy cheese. A halved lemon came with the pizza, for squeezing over top, adding some brightness that balanced the earthy and salty hit of freshly grated pecorino Romano.

Il Leone
2 Garden Pl., Peaks Island. 207-370-1471.
Drinks & Dessert
Sodas, sparkling waters, and espresso are available, and adult beverages are bring-your-own. For dessert, there’s a selection of Gelato Fiasco scoops.
Il Leone is Italian for The Lion, and owner Ben Wexler-Waite leases Il Leone’s previously disused lot from the local Lions Club.

Each element was a clear expression of itself, but everything worked together — a distinctly Italian culinary sensibility. No surprise, then, to later learn that Wexler-Waite, who moved to Peaks in 2019 and opened Il Leone two years after that, has spent a good deal of time in Italy. The flavors on the asparagus pizza, for instance, were inspired by a pasta dish he tried in Siena. Il Leone also offers salads (arugula dressed with lemon and olive oil and sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper) and antipasto platters (vegetables, cured meats, cheese, freshly baked flatbread). In all instances, Wexler-Waite seems to abide by Italian cookery’s central tenet, something like: find the best ingredients, and don’t ruin them by getting too fancy.

Il Leone has another thing going for it, which is that a visit feels like a proper escape. Sure, Peaks is part of Portland and catching the ferry is about as involved as hopping a bus from one end of Congress Street to the other. But one moment you’re weaving through summer crowds in the Old Port, and the next you’re gliding through the harbor on the 15-minute ride to the island. After that, it’s a short stroll to the stand of trees glowing with bistro lights and scented by the wood oven. And while the ferry will get you across Casco Bay, the restaurant (or food truck or whatever it is) very nearly transports you across the Atlantic. No wonder pizza boxes have become such a ubiquitous sight on the return trip from Peaks.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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