A little over two years ago, I wrote a story about a chef leaving town.
It’s not the kind of story that typically makes headlines in Savannah, but most people who followed the food scene would tell you that Roberto Leoci wasn't “just a chef.”
It may seem like 100 years ago to some and 15 minutes to others, but once upon a moon Leoci's Trattoria, at 606 Abercorn St. in Savannah’s Victorian District, was the center of the Italian food universe in this city.
The location is currently occupied by Cuoco Pazzo Cucina Italiana. Leoci was here long before Celebrity Chef Hugh Acheson took a shot at Italian in Savannah with The Florence, and certainly before Bella Napoli charmed tourists on State Street downtown.
Leoci's was good. Most days it was great. His solo success landed Leoci a gig as the first chef in charge at Pacci Italian Kitchen & Bar adjacent to The Brice Hotel. Leoci had a successful line of products and a huge following across the Savannah area.
Until it all unraveled.
Maintaining a level of consistency required for the long haul with one restaurant is hard enough. Two restaurants is a little more than twice as difficult, especially when you consider Savannah's staffing challenges, and Leoci's seemingly insatiable desire to be something bigger than Savannah could offer him.
Hey, we all have dreams and desires, but there is something to be said about maintaining a solid foundation. Which Leoci found increasingly difficult to do over time.
Toss in a difficult divorce and the result was an implosion. His flagship restaurant closed. Soon after, he was let go at Pacci. It was time to go. So he did.
His travels took him to New York, Montreal, the Caribbean and South Florida.
"I wouldn't call it a failure." Leoci said. "There were a lot of factors that led to all of that happening."
We spoke to Leoci this week for confirmation on a story that has been water cooler chatter for a couple of weeks now around town. He is not only back in Savannah, but he has signed off on a ready-to-go restaurant space in the heart of town. Leoci's Mercato Italiano is scheduled to open in late December in the 12 Oaks Shopping Plaza on Abercorn Street. The space formerly occupied by Sugo Rossa Italian restaurant, which closed a couple of months ago.
"I had one main reason to come back," Leoci said. "The birth of my son Nico has changed everything for me."
Leoci is now a father. His son was born earlier this year, right here in Savannah.
"As much as I traveled, I always thought there was a chance I would come back to Savannah," he said. "This made it easy."
A child may have made the decision to return to Savannah easier, but there is still the matter of finding success a second time around here. This city can be forgiving, but the landscape, especially for Italian food, has changed rather dramatically since he left town.
"I think it's too much," Leoci said, referring to the growth of the food scene. "In order for it to succeed with all of these restaurants, we need more population."
So why in the world would you open yet another?
"What we are hoping to do is different,” Leoci explained. “We want to create a market type of environment. How much we do will depend on the staffing we can put in place. We will have lunch and dinner, of course, but I would love to have breakfast with Italian pastries and espresso in the morning, as well."
Leoci is counting on the significant following he enjoyed previously to return and support his new endeavor. Obviously, he is re-entering a marketplace full of people that don't know and don't care who he is. They just want to show up for a meal and enjoy it. Leoci believes his time away has prepared him for that challenge.
"Today I am 100 times the chef I was five years ago," Leoci said. "I have learned so much in my travels. I cannot wait to create new dishes for our guests and offer a whole new set of experiences."
He calls what will ultimately become his menu a “greatest hits” collection of dishes influenced by his time working side by side with celebrity chefs across the country. If you can't wait to return just so you can enjoy some of the dishes you had at 606 Abercorn, then you might be disappointed.
He tells us he's grounded now. The birth of a child has changed him for the better. "I will be here 100 percent of the time," he added.
Few will question Leoci’s talent as a chef. If there was a recurring issue, it was focus on what was most important. He says that has been made perfectly clear to him every night when he gets home to his child. Priorities, he says, are firmly in place.
Now he's just thankful for a second chance in a city he never lost an eye for, no matter where he hung his hat.
"I'm just happy to be home,” he said.
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