Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Foodie friends light up our Facebook feed with restaurant recommendations, and we act on as many as we can. Only a few times has the buzz been louder than the raves friends, chefs and restaurateurs alike are making about DeLuca's Pizzeria Napoletana in Hot Springs.
DeLuca's is the creation of Anthony Valinoti, a Brooklyn-born Italian-American whose love of Hot Springs compelled him to move there and whose love for Neapolitan pizza compelled him to open DeLuca's. You'll meet Valinoti when you visit: He works the room with energetic friendliness and more than likely will express wonder at why his pizzeria has become all the rage, stressing his lack of a formal culinary education.
No need to wonder. Valinoti has insisted on the very best ingredients and combined them in fairly simple but delightful ways. He makes all the dough and he assembles and cooks in a brick oven every pizza DeLuca's serves. His menu is straightforward: an antipasto platter and meatballs for appetizers, salads, pizza and two desserts.
Don't miss the antipasto platter ($10 small, $20 large), your first introduction to the focus on world-class ingredients. It includes five meats (mortadella, prosciutto, soppressata and two other salamis); two cheeses (fresh mozzarella and Gorgonzola); olives; sweet and spicy red peppadew peppers; and two house-made jams (ham and tomato), served with toasted bread.
Each ingredient was best-in-class, the thin, salty prosciutto wrapped around long, crispy bread sticks, the sopressata delightfully spicy, the mortadella mild and lean like upscale bologna. The mild, creamy mozzarella offset the pungent blue. The stars of the show were the jams; the ham was salty and smoky, and a little went a long way; the tomato was sweet and dosed with just the right amount of basil.
The salads ($7 to $13) are pretty basic. The Gorgonzola ($10) features Arkansas greens, dozens of cubes of cheese and homemade dressing. We could have used a bit more dressing and a bit less cheese.
All the pizzas are 18 inches and have the same base: fresh whole-milk mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, extra virgin olive oil, homemade tomato sauce and fresh basil ($20). There are 14 specialty pies ($22 to $28) with predetermined ingredients, or you can build your own using the 10 meats ($4 to $5 apiece) and eight vegetables ($1 to $3).
We got the Butcher's Pie (any two meats) with homemade meatballs and Vermont smokehouse pepperoni and added portobello mushrooms ($28.50). We adored the thin, light, crisp-but-chewy crust. The tomato sauce was applied sparingly, letting the taste of the creamy cheeses and peerless meats and mushrooms shine through.
The meatballs were mild and succulent and the salty pepperoni was so far above what most Arkansans are used to on their pizzas that it's almost not even the same animal. The chunky-cut mushrooms were firm and meaty.
Interestingly, three ingredients are about all the staff will let you put on your pizza: They are all so hefty and rich, the crust just won't stand much more. After the large antipasto platter and a split salad, our three pizza eaters each had only one piece.
For dessert, there is cannoli ($4) and tiramisu ($7, a slab big enough for two). DeLuca's has the cinnamon-flavored cannoli shells sent from New York and stuffs them with a cool, rich, ricotta-based filling. The tiramisu is rich and huge, with strong coffee notes.
When Valinoti opened DeLuca's, he had only six tables, figuring that would be all he needed. But lines out the door prompted him to add booths and tables to an adjacent room (once a hallway), more than doubling capacity.
He still seems shocked so many people love his food. Surely someday he'll get used to the adoration.
DeLuca's Pizzeria Napoletana
407 Park Ave.
Owner-chef Anthony Valinoti makes his pizza crust by hand daily; when it's gone, it's gone. But when some is left over he makes it into bread; it's not on the menu, but you can take home a small loaf for $5 and a large one for $8. We did, and it's fabulous, yeasty and mild — crunchy on the outside and soft inside. The ham jam ($20 for a half-pint) and tomato jam ($10 for a half-pint) are also packaged to go.
4 to 9 p.m. Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Beer and wine, credit cards accepted.
Sorry, but I don't see how a return visit is going to make those soft…