Chef Marco de Rossi didn’t know anything about the Tidewater delicacy of soft-shell crab until a few months ago. He’s a native of Rome and a seventh-generation cook who is more comfortable working with cod and sea bass and baskets of anchovies and sardines. In Italy, he would prepare the fish whole – head, bones and all – not the filet-style Americans prefer.
But that hasn’t stopped the executive chef at Leone’s Italian, one of the newest restaurants in downtown Norfolk, from creating a menu that blends his Italian roots and his French training with an appreciation for local flavors.
De Rossi’s salmone alla Griglia features a moist salmon steak on a colorful mango salad, with roasted potatoes and golden beets – all of it drizzled with a lemon vinaigrette. The paccheri (spaghetti) alla puttanesca combines plump shrimp with red onion, cherry tomatoes and capers in a light brandy-flavored tomato sauce. His watermelon salad layers chunks of fruit with cherry tomatoes, adds a citrus vinaigrette, and tops it with candied ginger.
The dishes are often a new twist on a standard but de Rossi says, in his thick accent, this is “an Italian kitchen, old school.” His well-earned expertise and penchant for experimentation are what businessman Ron Zoby wanted when he decided to open another restaurant.
Zoby and several partners are behind a group of popular eateries along the Granby corridor, including 456 Fish and the recently closed Bodega. Bodega will reopen in December as Revolve, named for a constantly changing menu that will rely on locally sourced ingredients. A few blocks down is 219 An American Bistro, another in the RZ-Restaurants portfolio; it’s around the corner from Byrd & Baldwin Bros. Steakhouse and the Norfolk Seafood Company and Big Easy Oyster Bar.
Zoby has made a career out of hospitality. He owned his first restaurant in his 20s and has operated Ron Zoby Tours in Virginia Beach for close to 40 years. It coordinates cruise, bus and plane trips around the country, including to Atlantic City, Las Vegas and New Orleans. About 15 years ago he decided to go back into the restaurant business, wanting to play a part in the revival of downtown.
The industry is one of the toughest to survive, especially if you want to turn a profit. “The secret to making a small fortune in the restaurant business,” Zoby says, quoting the old joke, “is to start off with a big fortune.”
But he loves the customer service aspect of the industry, meeting new people and making them happy. “I’d rather have a customer come to me and say, ‘Hey, I loved that veal’ than money. Money is important but not that important.”
Of his restaurant properties, Leone’s might be the most personal to him. He named it after his father, Leo Thomas Zoby, who owned a Norfolk mechanical engineering business and died in 1999. A mural of him is painted on one wall. “When I come in sometimes and look at it, I still get tears in my eyes,” Zoby says.
Leone’s occupies a building that goes back a century and most recently housed Sirena Cucina Italiana restaurant, which relocated to Virginia Beach. Zoby wanted an Italian restaurant that combined elements of old and new.
The exposed brick walls provide a rustic feel but also a nod to the city’s – and the structure’s – longevity and durability. They contrast with the crisp contemporary lines of the furniture, the polished concrete floor, and a cool mix of browns, greens and grays throughout the main dining room. The silver, tin-tiled ceiling radiates an Old World ambience, while the bar with its marble counter, warm-toned wood and low-back barstools are a statement that this is a place for good times and great drinks. Leone’s offers rooftop dining and this summer will complete an outdoor dining area in the rear with fire pits and pergolas.
Zoby’s daughter, Michelle Zoby Payne, suggested he turn the adjoining building, a former barbershop, into a small store that specializes in Italian fare. That idea became Leone’s on the Side, which offers Italian candies, cookies, gelato, wine, wineglasses, specialty cooking items and ready-made salads and sandwiches. Payne, who manages the store, used to have her own gift-basket business and had that in mind when she suggested this one. People can come in and quickly find an unusual gift or pull together a meal for an impromptu picnic downtown.
Sauces and imported cheeses used in the restaurant can be bought at the store, too. Chef de Rossi has even been known to help out here. He probably works too many hours, but he says his love of good food and wanting people to enjoy themselves is what keeps his job from feeling like work.
When he was a chef in Dallas, restaurant reviewers praised his work as a pizza maker, a skill he learned when he was 14 and had to stand on a milk crate in his father’s shop to reach the oven. He, his wife and children returned to Italy briefly before moving late last year to Norfolk, where his mother-in-law lives.
Some of his family’s recipes, such as the marinara, have found their way into the kitchen. He prefers to make most things by hand, including the tortellini and gnocchi. He even makes the ice cream, such as for the profiteroles and cioccolato – mini-scoops of ice cream, sandwiched between sliced beignets and topped with a dark chocolate sauce and fruit.
De Rossi loves being creative with the menu, and that is why the pastas and entrees change every Tuesday.
“If you don’t like something today, that’s all right,” he says. “Come back next week.”