Diamante in our midst

A Spanish experience in Chico

Paella de Ana

Paella de Ana

Photo by Tuck Coop

Leonardo’s Taste of Spain

Ask most Chicoans about the Spanish restaurant in town and their response will be, “There’s a Spanish restaurant?” Indeed there is, Leonardo’s Taste of Spain, and the food is one of Chico’s culinary treasures.

Getting hold of Leonardo’s food isn’t easy. Owners Ana Naveira and Luis Saenz had a sit-down restaurant for a while, but now it’s strictly catering, plus the familiar cart at the Saturday farmers’ market. They have a lot of irons in the fire, so they’re reachable by phone only Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons. Email is unreliable. Their dishes require ingredients imported from Spain, so they need lead time (a week ideally) to make sure everything is on hand. The menu online is meaningless—of the five dishes my catered dinner included, four of them weren’t on the online menu, and the ones that are often aren’t available.

Once these hurdles are overcome, dealing with Naveira is easy and entertaining. She will ask you, “How Spanish do you want it?” Tell her, very Spanish. She will ask you what dishes you want. Tell her, paella, empanada, Torta de Santiago for dessert, and anything else she recommends.

Since Leonardo’s is a catering service, you need a group larger than two. Invite some friends over and make a party of it. Leonardo’s will deliver, but go pick the food up at the kitchen (973 East Ave.)—that way you can chat longer with Naveira, which is a large part of the experience.

Paella, a word so much fun to say that an entire episode of Seinfeld was built around it, is a Valencian dish that’s found in various forms all over Spain. It’s basically a large pan of saffron rice, meat and vegetables. It’s traditionally shellfish-based, but Naveira can make it with any meat you desire. Leonardo’s requires a $25 deposit on the pan, and Naveira will use a disposable tray if you don’t want the hassle of returning it. But get the pan—it’s a necessary part of the experience.

Empanadas are Spanish pastries, like the little empanadillas Leonardo’s sells at the Saturday farmers’ market, but here a full-size pie. They can be made with any meat filling, but Naveira suggested going with the traditional mackerel, which sounded horrible to all of us and turned out to be lovely—hearty, stewy and not the least bit fishy, salty or oily. Empanadas, like pasties, are designed to travel, so the crust is stout, not buttery/flaky like a pot pie’s. Accept it.

The Torta de Santiago is a dessert from northwest Spain, deeply involved in sacred mystery and dear to Galician hearts, like Christmas plum pudding is to the English. It’s made from ground almonds, sugar and zest, with a subtlety and complexity of flavor that belies its simple ingredients list. Cheap tortas are made from almond flour, but Naveira takes pride in peeling and crushing her own almonds, and it shows. This is one of the world’s bucket-list desserts.

I typically don’t care much what food looks like, but everyone in my party was simply knocked out by the beauty of Naveira’s presentation, such that digging into it seemed like sacrilege. The torta looks like an angel on a plate, and the paella is the food equivalent of a medieval cathedral’s rose window.

Leonardo’s food, while interestingly ethnic, is all easy to eat. The flavors are fresh and bright without being spicy or weird. The cost is downright cheap: paella, empanada, tortilla, torta and Naveira’s proprietary aioli came in at $100, which sounds a bit pricy until you realize it easily serves eight, so you’re talking dinner for $12.50 a person. And it’s quite simply the most delightful food experience I’ve had in Chico in years.