On the chalkboard by the entrance to Leli’s Diner, the list of nightly specials typically includes a fresh catch and a couple more entree options, maybe a pasta. “Naked chicken,” a boneless breast stuffed with spinach, pancetta and provolone, has appeared frequently of late, and has gotten so popular that owner/chef Joseph Leli has decided to add the dish to the regular menu.
On weekends, the list expands to include more ambitious fare. Recent temptations have included grilled swordfish over pineapple risotto, a double-cut veal chop with roasted trumpet mushrooms and truffled potato chips, and for a brief time while they were in season, pan-fried N.C. soft shell crabs.
Before you even set foot inside the place, one thing is clear: Leli’s is not your father’s diner.
Sure, Dad would recognize many items on the menu – which, true to diner tradition, is the same menu with the same prices, regardless of the time of day. Meatloaf, corned beef hash, burgers, sandwiches, soup of the day – you’ll find them all on Leli’s extensive bill of fare. Naturally, breakfast – a broad selection that covers the all-American spectrum from New York-style egg sandwich to Denver omelet – is served all day.
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OK, so the burgers are made with grass-fed beef, and they’re available with toppings ranging from pimento cheese and crispy pancetta to roasted peppers and goat cheese. Mixed in among the usual Reuben and chicken salad sandwich suspects, you’ll find the likes of chicken pesto, Cuban, and house-roasted beef with caramelized onions, barbecue sauce and provolone on ciabatta.
The meatloaf, made from Leli’s Czech-born wife’s recipe, is probably not what Pops had in mind. But once he’s sunk his teeth into Sarka Leli’s version – a blend of ground beef and pork seasoned with cumin, curry and caraway seed, and rubbed with mustard – he surely won’t complain.
Sarka Leli, who frequently helps out in the dining room, also contributes the recipe for a classic schnitzel (pork or chicken) that, like the meatloaf, is served with her creamy potato salad. Her primary role, though, is as pastry chef. Those black and white cookies, blueberry lime crumb cakes and other sweet tooth temptations under the glass domes on the counter are her doing.
If Dad is familiar with Joseph Leli’s cooking – and, given that Leli has been working in the area for more than 15 years, chances are good that he is – he won’t be surprised to find the entree offering dominated by Italian fare. He may even fondly recall Joseph’s Best – a signature creation featuring clams, shrimp, fresh tomato sauce and pesto over linguine – from the days when Leli was chef/proprietor of Babymoon Cafe in Morrisville.
Leli has since broadened his repertoire to include the likes of shrimp and grits with andouille and bacon, and a delightful vegetarian creation pairing soy-ginger-laced soba noodles with broccoli, soybeans, cabbage and tomato. But the bulk of his offering remains rooted in Italy. If his rigatoni bolognese has changed at all from the richly satisfying dish I first tasted over a decade ago, I couldn’t tell.
That’s not to say that Leli hasn’t grown as a chef. For evidence, all you have to do is check out those chalkboard specials, where you’ll invariably find at least one creation you haven’t seen before. Given the level of risk-taking, miscues are impressively few, the only one I encountered being a presentation of wild Alaskan king salmon whose flavor was overwhelmed by whole-grain mustard.
More typical are the specials I scored recently – on Father’s Day weekend, as it happens. Even to a palate that has become jaded with trendy variations on the Brussels sprouts theme, Leli’s rendition – deep-fried halves, garnished with shaved parmesan, crispy pancetta and a light balsamic drizzle – were thoroughly delightful. So was the chef’s riff on paella: a pan-seared mahi filet buried under a mound of brown rice, clams, mussels, jumbo shrimp and roasted red peppers in a saffron-tinged broth.
Most memorable of all, though, was the lobster and duck bacon BLT. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’ve paid $19.95 for a sandwich in a diner. And I’d happily pay it again, based on sheer weight of lobster alone – lots of sweet lumps, plus the meat of two whole claws, in a light mayo dressing.
Located in the Shoppes of Heritage in Wake Forest, Leli’s Diner is a suitably casual, two-room strip mall space with a modestly furnished dining room on one side and a full bar on the other. In the space where the former tenant had a rotisserie, Joseph Leli is planning to install a wood-burning oven to celebrate the restaurant’s first anniversary in September. By then, it’s a sure bet that Dad will have no objections whatsoever to a deli serving wood-fired pizzas.
3325-109 Rogers Road, Wake Forest
Cuisine: American, Italian
Noise level: moderate
Service: hospitable, variably experienced
Recommended: calamari, naked chicken, meatloaf, specials (especially Brussels sprouts, lobster and duck bacon BLT), desserts.
Open: Tuesday-Saturday 7 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 7 a.m.-4 p.m.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.