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Grow the dough 

How a Wall Street hotshot chased a childhood memory to a pizza career.

click to enlarge DELECTABLE AT DELUCA'S: The Italian Sausage pizza.
  • DELECTABLE AT DELUCA'S: The Italian Sausage pizza.

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," Valinoti 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 three 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. "He's been doing what I guess we all try to emulate at some point," Valinoti said. "Nobody really understood what it was. It was just really that good." Later, he'd search for that De Marco slice as an adult, in cities like Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles — all places where you'd imagine it's easy to hunt down a good pizzeria. "You can," Valinoti conceded. "It's just not what I was used to. There was always something different about New York pizza. I think this is changing now. Better chefs are opening up pizza shops and pizzerias. Nancy Sil [Silverton] comes to mind, with [Pizzeria] Mozza in California. There's no better bread baker than Nancy Silverton. Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York has his own pizza shop now. And you realize these people are doing some amazing things with dough, and you realize that this is nothing more than a loaf of bread, basically, flattened out."

If you didn't know better, you'd take Valinoti's mental list of the country's baking masters as a badge of lifelong culinary study, and you'd be dead wrong. In his best Henry Hill — only a few shades away from his own natural speaking voice — Valinoti described his childhood aspirations. "I don't know that there was anything else I wanted to do rather than work on Wall Street. I love the line in 'Goodfellas' where he says, 'Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a gangster.' For me, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to work on Wall Street." Valinoti's father was a truck driver and then a cop, and his grandfather Pat (DeLuca, for whom DeLuca's is named) was a printmaker. The young Valinoti, though, was drawn to less blue-collar pursuits. "There was something prestigious about banking, especially in New York," he said. "And that's what I gravitated towards." After an interview in which his would-be boss asked him a single question, "Do you like to eat and drink?" Valinoti got a job as a money broker and worked the stock market for 13 years, moving money around from 7 a.m. until the markets closed at 5 p.m., then schmoozing with clients in restaurants and bars at night. "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."

Eventually, he didn't feel like looking for answers anymore, at least not the kind the stock markets were giving. "I knew I couldn't do it any more. My last job was in Two World Trade Center, the 55th floor. That was before all that catastrophe, and those terrible, terrible days in New York. ... I found myself not being myself. I was very short. And it's very hard to walk away from a job where they're paying you that much money."

click to enlarge IT'S IN THE DETAILS: DeLuca's Pizzeria in Hot Springs is a winner in the Best Pizza category.
  • IT'S IN THE DETAILS: DeLuca's Pizzeria in Hot Springs is a winner in the Best Pizza category.

He dropped everything "with no rhyme or reason," he told me, and headed to a place whose wonders he'd only become enchanted with a year earlier: Las Vegas. "Got tired of that once my parents passed away," he said dryly. "My parents passed away within two days of each other, and I just grew disenchanted with everything. My sister always likes to say, 'It was their happy ending; it just wasn't our happy ending.' It was just the way it was. It just happened. And I just wanted something different in my life."

He drifted to Europe for a few months, then back to Vegas, where a man he met remarked, "If it wasn't for my ex-wife, I'd live in Hot Springs, Arkansas." Valinoti booked a flight into Little Rock the following morning, rented a car and drove to Hot Springs. "It's funny; I always tell people that I know this, but I saw a sign for Centerfold. And I'm like, 'How bad could this place be?' So I drove around," he said. "I went to Maxine's. I was sitting on the porch at the Arlington having a drink, and I felt at complete peace. When I saw the buildings and I saw the architecture, it reminded me of New York and Chicago, and it exists in this absolutely magnificent National Park. You're not gonna find that everywhere. This is much different than other places in the South. I've traveled all over. I've been literally all over this planet. There was something very, very calm and very, very serene here. I didn't know anyone. It was just a hunch."

The hunch was a solid one. Valinoti needed catharsis, and the north section of Bathhouse Row needed pie. So, fueled by a memory of Di Fara and some grief that needed working through, Valinoti made a move. He built a plan to open a pizzeria, and went to Naples, Italy, to learn how. "I was heartbroken. And I needed to take that pain in my heart and put it into something. I needed something that was cathartic for me, right? And I needed something that was physical, the physicality of making dough. We made all the dough by hand, and that's how I learned. I never used a machine and I still don't."

He wasn't happy with the pizza at first (and, arguably, isn't completely satisfied with it three years later), and pulled back from the fanfare of a grand opening. "I was tellin' people — excuse my French — this was shit. 'But if you'll just give me a minute, I'll figure it out. One way or another, I'm either gonna figure it out or I'm gonna walk away from it because I can't figure it out.' "

And, just as he did on Wall Street when a stock wasn't doing well, Valinoti adjusted. "I would come in, and I would make these catastrophic errors, I felt, but I wouldn't make that same catastrophic error again," he said. He moved boxes of dough from room to room. He recruited help from chefs. He employed people who knew what they were doing — most of whom have bucked typical restaurant turnover rates and stuck around at DeLuca's. "This place should not be open. Let's be honest," he said. "I probably should've quit a thousand times, but I said to myself, 'You haven't given people the best that you have yet.' "

If the half-Italian sausage, half-Calabrase pie I made it home with was not Valinoti's best, I'm not sure what tinkering might make it so, and I wouldn't dare offer advice. Even after a drive from Hot Springs to Little Rock — no doubt a far cry from the way a Di Fara or a DeLuca's pie was meant to be eaten — the crust was toothsome, chewy like a Vino's pizza crust, but crispy like a ZAZA's pie. It was New York-floppy, but covered heftily enough in fresh shredded and whole milk mozzarellas not to fall apart. The Calabrase, which the menu describes as "Creminelli Brothers Spicy Gourmet Pepperoni," was salty and briny enough to have stood on its own on one of DeLuca's antipasto platters, and the other half was dotted with irregular crisps of Italian sausage from J.V. Farms in neighboring Bismarck (Hot Spring County), conservatively spiced with fennel seed.

As it was constructed, the kitchen walls vibrated with music. Valinoti doesn't like to talk much when he works. He claims the playlist typically includes Lou Reed and The Allman Brothers, but on the afternoon I visited, it was Blondie's "Denis" that shook the cutout of The Rolling Stones tongue and lips and the adjacent calendar flipped to the lovely Jezabelle Jax, one of Spa City's burlesque artists.

The rest of the DeLuca's menu is a marriage of Italian staples and Arkansas-grown goods: salads made with Arkansas Natural's Spring Mix and an option to add chopped, smoked beef from McClard's as a pizza topping ("In New York, there's this attitude that we know everything about food," Valinoti said, "but we don't know anything about barbecue.") Like a great barbecue place, though, DeLuca's makes a day's worth of dough and when it's gone, it's gone. There's a pizza named after Don Gooch, the head honcho at Spa City's Arvest Bank, one of the pizzeria's early patrons. There's cannoli, gelato and enough espresso to keep the whole affair running a brief but vigorous three and a half days a week: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Valinoti sticks close to the premises and shies away from daily suggestions that he add a food truck or collaborate on a farm-to-table catered dinner. "When I leave here at night, I'm exhausted. I'm mentally exhausted. I can truthfully say I've given you everything I have, and that's all I wanna do."


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