Ben Wexler-Waite knows a thing or two about seasonality. His home on Peaks Island sees its population double each summer and his restaurant, Il Leone, is a 100% outdoor undertaking, meaning that due to the vagaries of Maine weather, it can only run from May to October, when his outdoor water supply gets shut down. But for Benjamin, seasonality isn’t just about the weather, it’s about the flavor.
In between jobs on political campaigns, he worked on a small organic farm, which deepened his appreciation for the quality of fresh, in-season produce. But to his dismay, when it came to restaurants serving local foods, most of the farm-to-table offerings were small-plated, high-end affairs, out of reach to many except for special occasions.
Ben wanted a way to make farm-to-table eating more accessible, and he knew the perfect platform to do it with – pizza. Ben is frequent visitor to Italy, and had long been struck by the difference between the Americanized Italian he saw at home and the Italian food he consumed in Italy. The Italy-based fare had a focus on quality ingredients, prepared simply to let the flavors shine, something he found to be particularly true of Neapolitan style pizza.
Neapolitan pizza is the original pizza, invented in Naples in the 18th century when locals topped their naturally leavened flatbreads with tomatoes and cooked them quickly over a wood fire. What Ben serves at Il Leone today wouldn’t look too unfamiliar to those 18th century Italians. Il Leona pizzas are 100 percent naturally leavened with no commercial yeast or additives, which is fermented for a minimum of 24 hours, topped with ingredients from local farms (including Stone Cipher Farm in Bowdoinham) and then baked at over 800 degrees in a traditional Italian wood oven.
While the techniques are old, Il Leone is new, opening in the summer of 2021, and Ben was new to the restaurant business. A graduate of Colby College, a friend suggested he reach out to the Maine Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) at CEI for help formulating a business plan and getting ready to seek financing. Ben and his advisor worked together to develop financial models and research various financing options for the equipment he would need – namely a wood-fired oven on wheels.
After weighing multiple possibilities both at CEI and with other lenders, Ben decided to apply for CEI’s Business Loans for Maine’s Coastal Counties – a special revolving loan fund for Maine’s coastal communities made possible through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.
Il Leone, which is located on part of wooded lot owned by the Peaks Island Lion’s Club (hence the name, which is Italian for “The Lion”), is a “matchless melding of pizza and place,” according to its latest review in the Portland Press Herald, and an extension of Portland’s nationally recognized food scene. A 15-minute ferry ride from Portland makes it accessible to both visitors and year-round island residents, and with the combination of Maine seasonal produce and Italian techniques, some might say the pizza alone is worth the trip.
LEARN MORE ABOUT IL LEONE
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