The pizza man

I was visiting with one of the civic leaders in Hot Springs recently when the subject turned to the rebirth of the Spa City’s downtown.

We began talking about a Brooklyn native who showed up in Hot Springs almost four years ago, hit the ground running and hasn’t slowed down since.

My lunch companion stated: “We’re lucky to have gotten that guy.”

“That guy” is Anthony Valinoti of DeLuca’s Pizzeria on Park Avenue.

Food enthusiasts across the state think he turns out the best pizza in Arkansas. Some have even proclaimed DeLuca’s to be among the best pizzerias in the country.

It’s quite a story for a former Wall Street banker who landed in Arkansas in 2013. At the time, he knew nothing about either Hot Springs or making pizzas.

I arrived at DeLuca’s prior to the 4 p.m. opening time on a recent Thursday. I mentioned that I had come from a lunch meeting that day, but the demonstrative Valinoti gave me a hug and still insisted on bringing me a Caesar salad along with several meatballs to snack on while we visited.

“I’m very, very lucky to have chosen this place,” he said in his thick New York accent. “I don’t think I could have made this work anywhere else. The people of Hot Springs simply refused to allow me to fail in those early days when I really didn’t know what I was doing.

“I’m not a chef. I’m a kid from a blue-collar family in Brooklyn. My style is to put my head down and get to work on whatever project I take on. I should have declared this a failed experiment and quit during the first year. But I couldn’t quit because I knew how many people in Hot Springs were pulling for us. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I’m still that way. If someone comes in here to eat, I want to make sure that we don’t let them down. I walk around the room asking them what they think. If they have a suggestion, I take it to heart.”

Valinoti, 54, decided as a child that he would one day work on Wall Street. His father was a truck driver and a policeman. Valinoti indeed worked on Wall Street for 13 years and made good money.

Something was missing, however.

Even though the paychecks were large, the work itself ceased to be rewarding. Valinoti quit his job and moved to Las Vegas. Though Sin City had its charms, Valinoti still wasn’t fulfilled. A friend from California, who developed shopping centers for a living, was visiting Las Vegas and said one day, “If it weren’t for my ex-wife, I would live in Hot Springs.”

The man told Valinoti about an old resort city in rural Arkansas that had, in a sense, been Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas — casinos, floor shows, the works. He said that the downtown area of Hot Springs was a bit down on its luck but that the place had history, charm and hospitable people.

Valinoti was intrigued.

He booked a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Little Rock the next morning, rented a car upon arrival and drove to Hot Springs. He got a room at the Arlington Hotel, walked down the street to drink at Maxine’s and soaked in the atmosphere.

“I knew immediately that I was home,” Valinoti said. “I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this place. I was overcome by its charm and felt more relaxed than I had ever felt before. I knew within a few hours that I would move here and start a business.”

In cities across the country, Valinoti had found himself frustrated with the inability to find pizzas like the ones he grew up eating in Brooklyn. He’s quick to admit that he has a short attention span and needed a new project. Valinoti began experimenting with how to make Brooklyn-style pizzas, found space in a building on a stretch of Park Avenue that has seen better days and opened the doors of DeLuca’s with six tables on Nov. 22, 2013.

He admitted to me that he locked himself in the men’s room that first afternoon before the restaurant’s doors opened.

“I was terrified,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that I had the hubris to do this. The idea of feeding other people had sounded good as a general concept, but then I actually had to do it.”

Valinoti eventually unlocked the restroom door, came out and fed several hungry patrons that night. He continued to perfect his methods, especially the way he makes the dough. Within months, foodies across the state were talking about this new spot in Hot Springs.

Here’s how Stephanie Smittle began a wonderfully written feature on Valinoti in the Arkansas Times back in March: “Anthony Valinoti, owner of DeLuca’s Pizzeria at 407 Park Ave. in Hot Springs, thrives on the kind of volatility involved in making pizza, as he says, ‘the hard way.’ DeLuca’s has no freezer. It has no microwave, and it has no stand mixer — all standard equipment for reducing a restaurant’s margin of error and streamlining a production process. It has no dedicated room in which to ‘grow the dough’ (Valinoti’s words), and therefore no consistent way to sequester the fermenting mounds from the litany of things that can affect dough rise — humidity, the temperature outdoors, whether the yeast is feeling feisty that particular afternoon.

“‘If you treat it with a lot of respect, it can turn out well,’ Valinoi told me. ‘I’m not a chef. I don’t consider myself a chef. But a chef takes something that’s pretty much dead and reanimates it. Chefs are reanimators. This is what they do.’

“Valinoti is a storyteller and a gesturer. He cupped an imaginary globe of yeasty life in the air with hands covered in smudges of nonimaginary pizza dough, dusting my laptop and the table beneath it with fine flour at each firm conclusion. ‘When you put water, salt, flour and yeast in a bowl, it comes to life. And the idea behind what I’ve learned over the last there years is how do you harness that life?’

“As a kid, Valinoti would visit Di Fara Pizza in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood on Brooklyn’s Avenue J, watching the revered Dom De Marco hunched over the counter, forming discs by hand and snipping basil over the finished pies with a pair of kitchen scissors.”

Valinoti told Smittle: “He has been doing what I guess we all try to emulate at some point. Nobody really understood what it was. It was just really that good.”

When the subject turned to his previous career, he told her: “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to work on Wall Street. There was something prestigious about banking, especially in New York. And that’s what I gravitated towards. … I’m very lucky in that if I lock into something, I can get to be pretty good at it. You know, it may take me a minute, but my attention span is that of a gnat so you’ve got to lock me in, and you’ve got to lock me into a project that is way above my head. That makes me keep going. That makes me keep looking for answers.”

He seems to have found the answer to making great pizzas.

An earlier Arkansas Times review described DeLuca’s pizzas this way: “After making my selection from the menu, and a very short wait, my server placed the pie on my table. This thing was like a work of art. A rainbow of colors — red, orange, white and green. Pepperoni, onions, cherry tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and fresh basil. I wasn’t sure if I should eat it or frame it.

“The first bite made me realize that this is what real pizza is. For those old enough to remember Pop Rocks candy, the candy that would pop and crack in your mouth, the sensation was the same. Only this time, instead of sweet candy flavor, what popped was the basil, the sauce, the fresh tomatoes and mushrooms, and the spicy pepperoni. The thin crust had a crisp texture to it, but a little chewy at the same time, very enjoyable. Everything has a flavor all its own, but it all comes together to make a flavor unlike any pizza I’ve had. Now you might say that this reaction was due to it being my first visit, but I assure you the reaction is the same on every visit, and there have been many, with many more still to come.”

The huge fire that consumed what remained of the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel just down the street occurred a few months after DeLuca’s opened. The power at the restaurant went out that Thursday night, and the street was blocked by emergency vehicles. But rather than being a setback to the neighborhood, the fire proved to be a wake-up call for Arkansans. People not only in Hot Springs but across the state realized that they had allowed a place that had once been the jewel of the South to deteriorate over a period of decades.

Feb. 27, 2014 — the night of the fire — was the beginning of the ongoing renaissance of downtown Hot Springs.

And DeLuca’s, which now draws customers from across the region, has been a key part of that renaissance.

The restaurant was full by 4:30 p.m. on the day I was there. I talked to a couple in a nearby parking lot who had driven from Little Rock to bring their granddaughter to DeLuca’s for the first time.

“I learn more about this city and love it more with each passing day,” Valinoti told me as I chewed on a meatball. “The Majestic fire was awful, but I saw hope and optimism in the wake of that event. Look at all of the buildings that are being sold downtown. Look at the developments that are now taking place. People said that I shouldn’t open a business on Park Avenue, but sometimes it takes an outsider to see what other people can’t see. Now there are people walking down here at night from the hotels on Central Avenue. They feel safe.

“I’m hoping to see more businesses on this street. I had a guy in here the other day who had ridden his motorcycle 112 miles just to eat here. Those kinds of stories keep me going.”

Like me, Valinoti hopes the city of Hot Springs will develop outdoor thermal pools on the Majestic site, which finally has been cleared of debris. He believes that will bring even more visitors his way.

Summing up the past four years, Valinoti said, “It’s serendipity that I’m in Hot Springs. You know, the fork in the road sometimes takes you to where you’re supposed to be.”

The restaurant is only open four days a week, which Valinoti calls the perfect schedule.

“I don’t think I could enjoy doing this seven days a week,” he said.

Valinoti lives on Lake Hamilton. He told me: “My friends have boats, and they love to take me out of the water. By Monday morning, after four days of this, I just want to be out on the lake. This is so much more satisfying to me than my work on Wall Street. My father wanted to kill me when I told him I was leaving Wall Street, but this was meant to be. There’s something beautiful about feeding people things they enjoy. And there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”

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