words: Dwain Hebda
Images:Dwain Hebda and courtesy Jeff Fuller Freeman
Four nights a week Anthony Valinoti stands at the center of a hurricane, a six-by-eight patch in the back of DeLuca’s Pizzeria, the joint he founded three years ago in Hot Springs, Arkansas, named for his grandfather. In front of him sits a small prep table; to his right, a glowing double-decker brick oven and behind him, first mate Zach Nix keeps things stocked and moving.
Flour hangs in the air that is heavy with heat, aroma and the Rolling Stones at full blast. A smile carves through Anthony’s face as Mick Jagger’s famous drone struts out from speakers hidden somewhere in this tiny kitchen. One shoulder creeps up to his ear, a knee bends, he’s bouncing, bobbing, singing along. At the hook, he howls.
To his left—out THERE—the people just keep coming. It’s Thursday night, normally the slowest of the week, but an unexpected group of about twenty teachers, in town for a national convention, have decided to give DeLuca’s a try. Anthony, fifty-three, has been in Saturday-night gear for more than an hour.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Let me get caught up here, and I’ll cook something for you.”
The apology is, of course, unnecessary, but get to know Anthony, and it’s not unexpected. DeLuca’s is not your average pizza parlor; it’s more like being invited into Anthony’s home. That’s been the vibe since Day One even as word keeps spreading and rave reviews stack up. Come in here, and if you’re not family, you’re pretty darn close.
“I see it as sharing something,” he says. “I didn’t know what barbecue was until I moved here and ate at McClard’s; you can live in New York, and you’ve got all these places, but you have to come here to discover what Southern food really is. So, the great people of Arkansas have shared their food with me, and I’m sharing what I love. They’ve been very, very receptive to it.”
If DeLuca’s Pizzeria seems out of place in Hot Springs, it’s because central Arkansas has never seen anything quite like it. The pizza here is related to local fare in name only, which is not to say that you can’t find really great pizza elsewhere; it’s just that Anthony’s species is something radically unindigenous to local palates.
The great people of Arkansas have shared their food with me, and I’m sharing what I love. They’ve been very, very receptive to it.
“I say this without ego, but what I do, it just wasn’t seen here, and I don’t know why that is,” he says. “It is so completely different than anything people here are used to.”
Few pizza places will run out of dough, for example, and if they do somebody’s in trouble. DeLuca’s says right up front that this is a possibility and while it’s rare, it does happen. Anthony makes the dough fresh every day, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. He’s got a pretty good idea what will cover any given crowd, but an unusual night like tonight means constantly dispatching someone to the cooler for a dough count, like a fox-holed Marine checking how much ordnance he’s got left.
“The dough,” he says, “is everything.”
Anthony scoops each silky, sticky mound onto his prep table, douses it with flour and goes to work. This isn’t one of those places where he’s in an open kitchen performing for the crowd. No dough gets tossed skyward to flatten it out. His technique is rough-hewn and efficient, pounding the dough with his fists, the yeasty pellet coughing little plumes of flour with each blow until it yields the desired thickness.
Or thinness, to be more accurate. The dough at Deluca’s comes out thin and resilient with a great crunch yet chewy and pillowy throughout. The physics of it demands two hands to eat and leads into one of the other distinguishing characteristics of the place. Don’t expect the kitchen sink; they don’t make it. In fact, servers will try to wave you off ordering more than three premium toppings per pie. The crust just can’t take it, and besides, Anthony doesn’t understand why you’d want to anyway.
“My favorite pizza? Plain. If I had my way, I’d make four pizzas. Plain cheese, a pepperoni, a sausage, and a mushroom. But…” He shrugs.
Part of what keeps this kitchen on the rails is the faith he has in Zach, a central Arkansas native who’s cooked in resort and fine dining kitchens from the Pacific Northwest to Garland County. In Nix, Valinoti gained a food guy, someone who knew what an idea tastes like, how to stretch a vision out on a board and bake it in an oven until the edges pop to the touch. Though Anthony is nearly twenty years his senior, there’s a palpable bond there.
“Tony has really shown me the value in doing one thing and doing it better than anybody else,” Nix says. “For us to do this and do it consistently is really hard.”
On this night alone one guest wants a pizza with no crust. Another orders a whole pie where two of the slices have no cheese on them and do not touch the other pieces that do, telling the server she’s brought her EpiPen “just in case.” Anthony has no friggin’ clue how he’ll do either.
“Who needs pizza that bad?” he asks. Another shrug – the customer is always right. Whattayagonnado?
At peak times, the kitchen is a blur. Anthony’s head stays down, and his hands fly, Zach watches the oven and barks for servers to fetch orders. Passion bubbles like the pies flying out of the oven and everyone is held to account. Take down an order wrong, move slow or generally get in the way back here and you deserve whatever happens to you.
A towering waiter with a half-sleeve tattoo grabs a pie and, noticing a visitor, pauses for a split second. “You’re brave coming into this kitchen,” he says, then disappears into the front of the house.
Anthony was born in Brooklyn, a self-described Italian mama’s boy and wild child. He spent twenty years as a stockbroker and businessman until the death of his parents sapped his appetite for Wall Street and led him to see the world. Drifting through Europe, he found himself enthralled by Naples where he rented a room from Ann Cimmina, a culinary professor who would become his teacher and muse.
“She became this beautiful light in my life, she was that mother figure I was looking for,” he says. “And it also turned out that she was one of the best cooks I’d ever seen.”
Anthony reluctantly came home, but his restlessness hadn’t let loose of him. The idea for a California restaurant dawned but after the deal fell apart he was left without a next move. He went to Las Vegas for some recreation, got wiped out at the tables and wound up chatting with an old casino fly who sold him on the beauty of Hot Springs. With no better options, he hopped a plane to Arkansas.
“I don’t know what I was thinking about three years ago. I really don’t know,” he says of his decision to stay and open DeLuca’s. “It was just this crazy thought I had, a random, crazy thought that I just wanted to do. I think about that a lot.”
Anthony stuck out in the Spa City and his charm and authenticity helped him make friends easily. It’s on display tonight, just like every night. True regulars pop into the kitchen to pay their respects, but the first-timers, he goes to them, working the tables, shaking hands. EpiPen Lady asks to pose for a picture. Everyone gets the same question, “How was it tonight? How was your food?” The answer is always raves, but he asks anyway and genuinely. He still can’t believe where all this has led.
“How is this place still open?” he says later, cooling his heels behind the restaurant on a well-earned break. “You couldn’t have done this any more blind than I did.”
A regular comes out to say hello; says in a soft Arkansas drawl tonight’s fare was “great, as always.” Anthony greets him warmly and sends him home with a bear hug. He feels most at home among such patrons and the encounter draws out a dry half-grin and a wave of his flour-stained hand.
“Ann [Cimmina] taught me the greatest thing ever,” he says. “She said when you cook you display your emotion. I never really understood what that meant. I was so very, very technical about what I did.
“About a year and a half ago I started to change my thinking about what I do and I started to understand what she meant by that. It’s not really recipes, it’s not really this, it’s not really that. You have to show your emotion through your food.”
407 Park Avenue
Hot Springs, Arkansas