Saint Leo offers unique take on pizza, Italian fare
By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
There was a time in Emily Blount’s life that acting was her primary passion. Now, it’s serving the freshest and best food to the residents, and visitors, of Oxford.
Through Saint Leo, the restaurant she owns along with her husband, a taste of Italy has never felt more local. A wood burning oven acts as the center piece of the recently opened establishment located on the Square.
Margherita pizza and pies that are topped with burrata and soppresatta has brought in patrons to dine at lunch and dinner over the past month, but there is so much more to Saint Leo. Antipasti that include marinated house olives, tomato peach bruschetta and pasta that features littleneck clams also please the palate. There are salads and options for those that don’t want carbs or are gluten-free.
As many of the ingredients that can be purchased locally are and that makes Saint Leo even more unique. Blount’s vision for the restaurant started in New York and it captures aspects of her ties to San Francisco as well.
“I worked in a lot of restaurants just as a necessity. I was an actress in New York which means you work in restaurants as well. I knew when we decided to move here from New York, I had stopped acting after having my first son and I was in a show for a really long time,” Blount said. “I knew I was going to do something hospitality related, but I didn’t know exactly how it was going to take shape down here. We had been visiting and deciding about where we were going to live and it was definitely an option.”
Saint Leo started out in different forms before turning into what it is currently. And because Blount loved the pace of the restaurant industry, she kept working towards having a place to serve and showcase her passion.
“I grew up around food. I love amazing food. My mom was an amazing chef. She always had a huge garden which we ate out of all the time,” Blount said. “I love cooking with fire and that was one of the things that naturally brought me to the wood fire oven. I noticed that there wasn’t one here. I saw that was something missing and the aspects of the California with the Italian simplicity, the fundamentals and ideas of community and being fresh and locally driven just all came together to what is now Saint Leo.”
There has been a large outpouring of support, and positive reviews, for Saint Leo, and all of it has exceeded the expectations of Blount.
“It’s been awesome. The people, the whole community, has been so welcoming and so enthusiastic and just willing to come in,” Blount said. “That’s one thing that I think is so great about Oxford, the people are so supportive of community-driven projects and businesses. It’s been great. Of course there are bumps in the road and kinks to work out, but it’s all about finding your groove and what works and what doesn’t. I’m happy we opened in July in order to get our legs underneath us and prepare for fall, which I’m sure is going to be busy or hope it’s going to be really busy.”
Prior to the restaurant coming together, Blount first introduced Oxford to her style through pop up events. She had the idea for Saint Leo well before those encounters, but while looking for a space to occupy — she said that took over a year — serving food, with the main concept as the backbone, was executed.
“I started working with Dan Latham, who used to have L&M here a while ago. He is a good friend and when I had all the ideas, I called him and what really was a conversation about advice turned into him collaborating with me on this menu and all of the recipes,” Blount said. “Dan and I were working together and that’s when the pop ups came about.”
During that time, Jeff Robinson was helping cook at the pop up events. The two built a relationship, and Robinson is now the head chef at Saint Leo. When Blount was able to find her ideal location, more work was done on the menu while the space was renovated. Blount said that menu took over a year, from start to finish, to complete.
“We care so much about not just every item on the menu, but where each of those items are sourced. Everything changes seasonally and when we thought that we were opening in spring, we had a spring menu and then that turned into summer so we had to switch it to our summer menu,” Blount said. “We also traveled. I’ve gone to L.A. and to Atlanta to eat pizza all over and eat Italian food to see what is going on now in the whole restaurant scene. All of the pizzas have been thoroughly thought out and planned to not only what can we get, but what is delicious. Jeff has really taken what we came up with and is now executing this menu to perfection.
“One thing that is awesome about the restaurant industry is that food is an immediate thing people react to,” Blount added. “It’s like you’re doing your art and you’ve either succeeded or failed 72 times a day, plate by plate. It’s always a challenge and a lot of work. You’re sort of always surfing, dealing with the issue of the day, but honestly that’s what makes it fun and exciting.”
Product integrity and quality are both very important to Blount. It’s important to her what people put in their body and she wanted to do that while making the price point accessible. The other aspect that Blount focuses in on is hospitality. Her goal is to find really good people, and then retain them so that the message of expectation is clearly conveyed all the time.
“I’m working hard to have a very hospitable place and think that starts with taking care of our staff. When people that work for you are taken care of, then they provide a better guest experience,” Blount said. “It kind of trickles down from there. They are the first line of contact of communication. It’s like helping people raise their emotional intelligence, to read people who come in and try to tailor the guest experience and make people feel just well cared for and special. That would be my biggest goal over time, that this place would feel like a clubhouse for people, that this is their spot.”
There are lunch specials, and there have been slight adjustments made to both the dinner and brunch menus. The menu will change in the fall, more when the temperature starts to cool, Blount said. When things can’t be purchased locally, the next ring of “people doing it the right way” are secured for ingredients.
“We are constantly looking for farmers and producers who are doing the right thing, who take care of their people and take care of the product that they raise,” Blount said. “I wanted to make this accessible to people who are not into gluten or into carbs. That’s why there are the plates and the salads. There are a bunch of vegan and gluten-free options. There are literally seven or eight things people can choose from and I’m not sure people know that enough right now.”