Tale an Italian man, add a Japanese woman, stir in lashings of love, combine with a passion for the authentic and, presto, Rotorua's been served up an eatery par excellence.

The restaurant's called Leonardo's, unsurprising given its owners Leonardo Baldi, an Italian not too long out of Tuscany. Yuka Nakamori (her name's origins self-explanatory), is the component that binds the prize-winning ingredients together.

It was Leonardo's Pure Italian that took out the recent hospitality awards' "best of the best" title - an accolade that came less than a year after Leonardo's first platter left his Pukaki St kitchen.

First up we want to know what led to the diverse cultural mix Leonardo and Yuka are. The answer adds yet another layer of international intrigue; they met in Brisbane while learning to speak English.


For Yuka, the language was essential for her wedding planner job (Australia's a top destination for Japanese marrying off-shore). Leonardo realised how limited his own English was while solo trekking the 1000km Camino di Santiago Walk from France to Spain's most westerly point, Santiago.

"I met so many people who told me lots of stories about the world and how it works that I wanted to learn English." Which begs another question why not learn English in England?

"Because that wasn't what I was looking for." In anyone's tongue Leonardo's a straight shooter.

At a Brisbane language academy, Yuka caught his eye, he caught hers or, as she puts it: "I thought he was cute, but he was younger, skinnier and fitter then, not being able to speak each other's language made it more romantic".

But there was a stumbling block, when they met Yuka was about to leave for Perth and thereby hangs a tale to tweak any tender heartstring.

Armed with a Lonely Planet street map, they agreed to meet on whatever Perth corner their pin landed on ... here's the romantic bit ... the date of that meeting was set for February 14, Valentine's Day.

Each was convinced the other wouldn't turn up. Both did, although Leonardo accuses Yuka of being half-an-hour late, her version's that he was hiding from her.

Regardless, their mutual attraction was rekindled and they moved in together.


This is where Rotorua enters the equation. Local girl Sarah Sanford was a flatmate.
When the couple planned a New Zealand holiday in July 2009, she suggested they stay with her real estate agent parents, Dee and Paul. Leonardo and Yuka accepted and have never left town.

Restaurant experience in Italy made him a shoe-in for a job at Nuvolari (initially washing dishes), Yuka became a housekeeper at the Novotel.
"It was very, very hard, at the time my English wasn't good and New Zealanders speak so fast."

Yet another country was to creep into the equation when she went waitressing at the Austrian-rooted Lewishams; Leonardo crossed the road to manage it, later Yuka moved to Urbano "for two happy years".

Flatting with other Italians a house rule was set, it was that they talk to each other in English "otherwise this Japanese girl would have ended up only speaking Italian". The pair tease each other constantly about their differing ethnicities. Leonardo takes a swipe at Yuka's inability to cook "the Italian way".

"God, she cooked mussels in red wine."

Regardless of the gastronomic gaff, the idea of opening their own "pure" Italian eating place had begun to percolate.

"We knew it'd be tough," Leonardo admits, but the duo refused to be daunted. The Sanfords set about finding them premises while Leonardo researched traditional recipes, not by ploughing through mountains of cook books but by skyping the person he regards as the leading authority on Italian food the "real deal" way ... his Nona (grandmother).

She instilled in him traditional ingredients must be fresh, seasonal and local; what can't be sourced from Rotorua's marketplace is imported, pasta flour, prosciutto and some wines carry the "made in Tuscany" trade mark.

Staff have continued the United Nations theme that's become the ongoing refrain of this culinary couple's lives together; head chef, Dean Lainderbaum's of German descent, his offsider's Argentinian and the back-up crew's Kiwi.

As opening night approached Leonardo and Yuka staged what he euphemistically calls "duck up night".

"We invited 30, Yuka was cleaning to the last second, Dean and I were still prepping when they arrived, I was covered in flour, friends were doing the dishes, actually they were drinking more wine than washing up.

"It was frantic but a great night because we made so many mistakes. After it we changed pretty much everything, three days later we opened to the public."

A fortnight in, and purely by word of mouth, they were turning diners away, a "reservations essential" policy was instigated.

Next month, Leonardo's opens for lunches three days a week but don't waltz in and expect a pizza "because it would be fake, not traditional".

With his own eatery close to but not in Eat Streat, Leonardo's aware there are those who'll be sharpening their knives when we relay his view on the ratepayer-funded precinct.

"It's great for Rotorua but its restaurants need to up their game, the first from the streat to make TripAdvisor's popular Rotorua eating places is 12th and it's a bar."

Leonardo's advice: "Treat diners as guests in your home, if you make a mistake go the extra mile to fix it, that's the Italian way."

Both have one bog-standard Kiwi slang word for their award win so early on in venturing into Rotorua's notoriously hard-to- crack hospitality industry ... it's "awesome".

"Yuka hugged the trophy so tight she broke it on the night, we've glued it back together but it's not just for us it's for everyone here, they work so hard, they share our passion."


Born: Leonardo: Pistoia, Italy; Yuka: Mie Prefecture, Japan.
Tertiary education: Leonardo: University of Florence (sports science degree), Yuka: Technical Institute (near Osaka).
Interests: Leonardo: Family, eating "I'm Italian", the gym "to burn off what I eat". Yuka: Family, Japanese cartoons - "I'm a comic nerd", reading, learning English via internet. Both: Belgian shepherd Argo.
Personal philosophy: Both: "You're only as good as your last meal."