Saint Leo blesses visionary Emily Blount in more ways than one
Photos by James Acomb
As it is told, Saint Leo, the patron saint of Rome, Italy (also known as Leo the Great), had the gift of reconciliation. He’s even credited with taming Atilla after his troops had already ravaged northern Italy, persuading the Huns not to forge ahead into the Eternal City. Leo served as Pope, head of the Catholic Church, from 440 until his death in 461, and he is considered to be one of the most influential figures in the Church’s history, due to his doctrine of faith and his dedication to his people.
While only one of more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church, Saint Leo the Great serendipitously found his way into the mind and heart of Oxford, Mississippi, restaurateur Emily Blount. She recalls naming her James Beard nominated restaurant Saint Leo, after the historic leader. “My sister and I were texting one night, and the name Leo had somehow been in the running. Saint Leo came up in that text conversation, and I looked him up. It turns out he’s the patron Saint of Rome. My middle name is Rome, like the city. It was perfect.”
Saint Leo, the wood-fired Italian restaurant, opened to rave reviews in 2017. That year, the restaurant earned its first James Beard nod as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. The second nomination came a mere two years later: a 2019 recognition for Saint Leo’s bar program just before Emily opened the restaurant’s sister concept, Saint Leo Lounge. Whether it’s fate, faith, or food, someone or something is on Emily’s side.
Even though you’re not technically Southern, you chose to put down your roots in Mississippi. What drew you to Oxford and the South?
I had my first son, and then I was having my second son not too long after, and that's when we decided, my husband and I, to move from New York City to Oxford. He is from here originally. When we got here in 2012, I started having the idea that I was going to do something hospitality related, but I didn't know exactly that it was going to be a restaurant.
What inspired you to open Saint Leo?
I kind of played around with a bunch of different ideas, but I landed on the idea of a wood-fired Italian inspired restaurant. And that's where just the first little seedlings of Saint Leo came from. My mom is a really amazing home cook. I would say that a lot of that concept comes from her, or is inspired by her, especially in terms of the simplicity, the attention to detail, and the quality of the products. I also noticed what was missing in the [restaurant] market down here.
How would you describe Saint Leo?
The restaurant is a small railroad type building and is intimate at just 14 feet wide. The whole thing is about 2,000 square feet. It is clean and sophisticated. It's casual fine dining, and the atmosphere is really lively. It's always bustling. It gets noisy, and it gets really fun on big nights.
How often does your menu at Saint Leo change? Why is it important that you keep it fluid?
We make seasonal changes a minimum of four times a year, but usually it really ends up being more like six. We do four bigger changes, and then we'll do two smaller changes, usually mid-spring or mid-fall. But we definitely have some items that stay all the time. There’s the Burrata and Soppressata pizza, which when it comes out of the oven, we top with burrata. There’s the Bianca pizza, which is a mix of four cheeses with rosemary, garlic, and chili flakes on top. There’s also the Prosciutto Arugula pizza, which is a classic, and then of course the Margherita pizza. The Nduja and Kale pizza right now is one of our seasonal items. Njuda is like a spreadable salami but softer, and it has some spice and heat.
How did you find the confidence to launch this concept? I feel like it took a lot of guts.
Yes. I mean in hindsight, I'm like, “What was I thinking? This is crazy!” I think that I've always been a very driven person. I tend to get something in my head and just go for it. It was hard for me to move away from New York. I've never lived in a small town, so I knew that I was going to do something that was going to take up time and energy. And I knew that I loved working in restaurants. I felt like it would combine a lot of the things that I enjoy and am good at. I know that I am generally a pretty determined person, and when I feel strongly about something I tend to just be risk tolerant and go for it.
What advice would you give to other dreamers when it comes to not letting lack of experience interrupt their plans?
I would give people the advice that getting really quiet within yourself and listening to your own inner voice is really, really important. I think that a lot of times in our society there's so much chatter and ideas pushed upon people. If there's something that you want internally, I think investigating it deeply, looking at it and examining it from all possible angles, and spending time with it is really important. If you put that time and effort into the deep discovery, then you’ll find the answer.
Saint Leo has developed into a family business. Tell me about how family plays a role at the restaurants.
When I opened the lounge, my sister-in-law, Joie Blount, came on as my business partner. I'm proud that we're two women who are doing this together. I couldn't do it without her. We get along so well, it’s scary. We complement each other with our strengths and our weaknesses. We have almost 80 employees between the two places, and I'm really proud of my whole staff and team because without them, nothing is possible. And that for sure, starts with Joie and ends with the very last one of them, because these types of organizations require many, many hands.
I have to end our time together on a light note: what is your favorite wine to pair with pizza?
We have one that we've had on the menu since day one, Paitin Dolcetto D'Alba. It’s a lighter-bodied red that has some structure and is not sweet or fruit forward. It's delicious.