Interview: Italian and Leonardo’s Pizza

This week, Brave New Food pays tribute to a local Italian staple in Gainesville, FL: Leonardo’s Pizza of Millhopper.

Gregg Brannan, longtime owner, was nice enough to sit down with this blogger and talk about his thoughts on Leonardo’s Pizza, Italian food, and more.

Posted is a 7 minute clip of our talk, and below you’ll find the full [transcribed] interview.

(And I apologize in advance for my horrid editing.)

We’re here with Gregg Brannan, owner of Leonardo’s Pizza of Millhopper in Gainesville, Florida. Gregg has owned the restaurant for more than three decades with his wife, Tina. Gregg, tell us a little bit about how you got started at Leonardo’s.

 

Well, that’s a good question, Ginny. It was never really my dream to have a pizza shop, per se, but I always wanted to have my own business. My wife and I loved Leonardo’s Pizza when we were going to school here [University of Florida] in the 70s and she got into accounting and did some accounting with Steve Soloman at Leonardo’s which is now 706, the original Leonardo’s

Owner Gregg Brannan | Photo by Leonardo's Pizza of Millhopper

and we both had other jobs, I was on a route for a Pepsi truck. I had my [advertising] degree, but didn’t immediately use that degree, so I was a route supervisor for Pepsi Cola and she was an accountant for an accounting firm she worked for said that Steve was looking to sell one of them, so we worked out a deal and they trained me for two days in their warehouse and handed me the keys and I’ve been here ever since. The only thing I’ve ever done close to that besides making pizza at home was washing dishes one time at a restaurant when in college. So that’s how we got going and 31 and a half years later, here we are.

 

What was it like when you first took over the restaurant?

We bought it after it was already open so we had a chance to look at the books from how it was going previously and we knew that there was some people coming in the door. And this land was projected to be the center of Gainesville (FL) by the year 2000. Things were heading out this way. But at the time, there was only this plaza, the Publix behind us, and maybe a little shop here and there. None of this stuff was here and we were off of a small two-lane road, and past this light the road was dirt. I thought well, if things do increase population wise in this direction, then we’ll probably make out in the long run. So we had a little bit of an idea that there was a track record. But it was pretty scary the first few weeks. I came in and introduced myself and told everybody that I was the new owner and they said, yeah, we heard that it was going to be sold. I didn’t shake anything up the first few weeks. I said, “do your thing, and I’ll just watch. Do what you normally do and I’ll make any changes later.” Basically, I needed them to train me because I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. So after that, I started putting my own little signature on some things and doing some things. I had to fire a few people so that people knew I was serious about being an owner. Steve had three of these restaurants and it was hard for him to be a three places at one time, so sometimes things were a little bit lax and I had to crank down on some things. We’ve had some ups and downs, but we’re still here.

What makes Leonardo’s Pizza different from other pizza places?

Well, we make most of the stuff right here on premise, we make the sauce here every morning. We make fresh dough in our 60 quart mixer – we use 50 pounds of flour every time. Every day we make it ourselves, let it rise, lay it out. We try to do as much as we can, use fresh vegetables. Chicago style is pretty much known for having a good amount of sauce and a thicker sauce and generous toppings and ingredients, kind of like a gourmet pizza. Traditional Chiacago style in Chicago, up at Pizzeria Uno, which is where the original Chicago style pizza came from, they actually put the sauce last – they put it on top of the cheese, but we couldn’t quite go to that extreme. So it’s those – it’s homemade, good quality stuff.  A lot of pizza out there, that you can get good deals on, it’s real cheese, but we try to even though sometimes we have to raise our prices a little bit, we know our customers would rather that because of the quality than try to decrease the quality and try to make a little bit more money. It’s a quality issue and I like that we’re owned locally and all of our people are pretty much local Gainesville people, some in college, some not, but most are from nearby neighborhood. It’s like a little community restaurant. There are a lot of locals in here, I get to know a lot of locals, and it kind of sets it apart. It’s not your typical chain where you go in and they give you the fake smile and the fake greeting. We know people’s name when we can and we make everything fresh.

I think you answered my next question, but what’s your secret to staying in this business so long?

I’m stubborn. There have been times when throwing in the towel seemed like a good idea. There’s been quite a few recessions, this last one was a tough one. There have been times in the past when I thought about chucking this and doing something else. But then I’d think about it and it always wasn’t that bad and whatever happens isn’t that bad. So we keep at it, and that’s probably one of the reasons we’ve been successful: I’m bullheaded.

Tell us about your most popular dish and why it’s a favorite?

That would be my wife – oh, wait, not that kind of dish. Probably the Big Leo pizza, that’s like our supreme. It’s just a good combination, when you put the sauce and the cheese together with the five ingredients on the Big Leo, it just is a good combination of flavors and it’s very popular. Whole wheat crust is coming on to be more popular these days as people are watching their health these days. We have the option of white or whole wheat crust, but lately it’s been pretty popular. A lot of vegetarians come in here too, because we have a lot of different variety of veggies. You can’t find too many restaurants where you can get things like zucchini, spinach and eggplant on your pizza, and we have those toppings available. Usually, the little kids don’t care for our pizza as much, because of the thick crust, be we can do a thin pie for them as well.

Have you changed much up from the original menu?

Just a tweak here and there really. With the original recipes, I just tweaked them a little bit with the sauce and the dough, and we added a few things since that time just to broaden the menu somewhat, like the lasagna, the manicotti and the chicken parmesan. We added a couple more sandwiches, like the meatball and the chicken parm, just to give people more choices. But basically, a lot of it is the same.

Now one thing, kind of going back here a little bit to your question of the most popular dishes, as far as small thing goes, the garlic rolls are one of the most popular things and that started out as a test to see if people liked them as an appetizer. Now, just about every table that comes in has to have an order or two of the garlic rolls. People order extra and take them home and freeze them or warm them up later. They’ve really taken off.

Now, switching gears a little bit, what makes Italian food (pizza included, of course) so unique?

It’s probably not that unique anymore. There are a ton of pizza places, a ton of Italian chains. But when we go on vacation, the first thing we’ll do is try a local pizza place. Because probably the unique and interesting thing is that everyone – in terms of the mom and pop’s – is a little different. Domino’s is a Domino’s and a Pizza Hut is a Pizza Hut, but you go to some other city in North Carolina or anywhere, their crust is going to be a little bit different, their sauce is going to be a little bit different in terms of the sauce and the spice and the tanginess. Everyone can make it their own way, so it’s always an experiment when you go out and see what this guy’s done with his pizza. But there are a lot of Italian places. I love Italian food because I’m a noodle and bread kind of guy. I love the pastas and the starches. I just love it.

In your experience, what it’s like teaching someone to cook Italian food?

It can vary. Sometimes it takes people a long time to get it. But once they get it, they’re great and they stay for a long time. Sometimes they’ll want to do it their own way, and I’ll have to say, go buy your own restaurant if you want to do it your way. I had some guys one time who wanted to put some hot sauce in the sauce. I said, no this is the recipe, and if you want to go put some red pepper or hot sauce in the sauce, then do it on your own time. Sometimes they want to experiment too much. But a lot of time I’ll learn from them. They’ll cook something a certain way and I’ll say, “wow, how did you make that?” So, I teach them, but sometimes they teach me, too.

What advice would you have for people, like the readers of this blog, who are just getting started in cooking Italian?

I would say try to keep your quality high without having to get it from the most expensive distributor. Compare prices and stick with a good quality. For the first few years, oversee it yourself quite a bit. If you are starting a restaurant, you have to be there a lot. If you are just cooking Italian at home, then you’re going to be there of course. But I would say, even at home, don’t skimp on the quality. Get the fresh stuff. I have people come in all the time asking me, “how do I do this”? I wont’ give out recipes but I’ll tell them how I would do it. I’m glad to give my input when I can. It’s a good question, flavor it to your own taste. Use your imagination and try not to burn anything.

What, in your opinion, is the hardest Italian dish to make. For me it’s the chicken parmesan, since it is so time consuming.

We’ve been doing it a while, so we’ve pretty much gotten the formula down, so it’s not that tricky. I still have trouble making the calzones sometimes, because I put too much stuff in there, and you have to fold it over before you cook it. So I’ll have too much stuff in there and it will ooze out the sides. It’s pretty messy. Getting the sauce consistency of adding enough water to the sauce and stirring it well enough – I always have trouble with someone not stirring it enough and a lot will be on the bottom. But, yeah, really now, it’s kind of like I’ve been doing 31 years so the recipes aren’t that difficult anymore. The most difficult thing now is keeping the place running. It’s never a dull moment.

Where do you see Leonardo’s Pizza of Millhopper in 10 years?

Ten years. That’s a good question. I would say it will still be here, either with myself or a good manager. I’ve already started to ease back a little bit as far as work goes, but I don’t think I ever completely want to retire. I’ll still probably when I’m not on vacation or travelling, want to come by and see what’s happening. I really enjoy all of the customers and the employees, the young kids keep you young. You get to learn all the new language. I’m not much of a golfer or stamp collector, so that’s I think how I’ll keep busy or else I’ll get in trouble.

It’s been 31 years for you in this business, tell us, do you ever get sick of Italian food?

Not really. Honest to goodness, you can ask my employees, I pretty much have a slice every day when I come in here. When I get here around 10:30 or 11, there are slices made so we can dish them out to people for a quick lunch while they’re working and I’ll just look up and go “give me a slice of that.” I’d say seven out of eight days I will have a slice of pizza. Sometimes I just thing, nope, I can’t do it today, so I’ll go over to Publix and grab a sub or make something different in the kitchen that’s not pizza. But like I said, when we go on vacation, people think it’s weird, but one of the first places we stop is some kind of pizza or Italian. People are like, “don’t you want to get away from that.” I want to get away from the work, I don’t want to get away from the food so much.

What else would you like to add, Gregg?

Good luck to all you journalism students. I’m a journalism grad myself, actually advertising. I guess my mom and dad’s money came in handy for all the silly commercials that I’ve made. And wish you guys luck. My son graduated from the journalism school too, and he actually four years ago won the student documentary of the year for the whole country, and I’d like to say hi to him. And hi to my lovely daughter, I wish her the best and her new baby. And, my wife, of course. I couldn’t have done it without her, because she’s the accountant and the brains behind the operation. Thanks, everybody, it’s been great.

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