Born of Heartache, Valinoti’s Arkansas Detour Fuses Time, Place and Family
Cuisine is the thread that weaves history, geography, ancestry and even emotion together. When we take part in the communion of food, we find ourselves inexplicably in tune with an audience of loved ones, ancestors and places we’ve only ever read about, from the beginning of time through the present.
One of the greatest examples of the impact of time, place and family on culinary arts can be found in Hot Springs at Deluca’s Pizzeria, an establishment that embodies the history of pizza and the migration of Italian culture and food.
Ask Anthony Valinoti yourself, and he will tell you in his Brooklyn accent: Deluca’s was born out of heartache. More than a decade ago, the former Wall Street trader lost both of his parents within two days of each other.
“That was their happy ending, but not mine. I was really disenchanted with the world.”
While visiting a friend in Las Vegas, Valinoti’s eyes fell upon a wine tasting magazine on his friend’s table.
“There was a simple picture of a pizza and a glass of wine, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew nothing about restaurants, but I came home, and I wanted to experiment.”
Valinoti realized that if he wanted to perfect the art of pizza and the culture of pizza making, he would have to go where it all began: Naples.
“A year later, I went to Europe and decided to spend a couple of months there. I was going to go to Naples and learn pizza. I had been living in a hotel, eating hotel food, when my translator suggested that I go meet with an older woman named Anna.”
Anna, Valinoti said, would be pivotal not only in his personal life but in his culinary career as well. Valinoti explained that the old woman insisted in broken English, “me no cook.” Valinoti replied that he didn’t care if she was a good cook; he’d eaten nothing but hotel food for longer than he could bother to count: “Just make me something simple. Here’s $100, go down to the store and get some ingredients. How about meatballs?”
Valinoti said the meal Anna prepared for him was one of the best he’d ever had.
“Turns out the old goat had taught cooking at the University of Naples,” Valinoti reveals, erupting into laughter.
But Anna was more than just a good cook.
“She was the replacement of my mother at the time. We adored each other at the end of it. I have 65 pages of her recipes in Italian. Additionally, she gave me a great piece of advice, but it took me years to figure out what she meant.”
Anna had told Valinoti, “You always have to remember when you cook that you’re just expressing your emotions through your food.”
Valinoti struggled with her words.
“I was technical about my food but as Deluca’s opened in 2013, I thought it was a hot mess, and it wouldn’t last. But customers were kind enough to come back. I made mistakes but if I made a mistake, I didn’t make it twice. Anna’s words came back to me. I’m not going to be technical anymore. If it fails, it fails, but I want to do it the right way. The dough became my canvas.”
Valinoti harkened back to his teacher’s words, putting extra care and love into his food. After being open for three and a half years, as Valinoti embraced Anna’s words, Deluca’s dramatically changed overnight. Valinoti said he had the great fortune of having a loyal and hard working staff, many of whom have worked with him for years, some from the beginning.
But for Valinoti, experience is one of the greatest teachers. And a host of forgiving supporters from the early days of Deluca’s helped turn those lessons into rules to live by.
“Not going to school, but just by doing it, you learn. It’s not always pretty. As we got busier and busier, we had to learn how to feed more people. My landlord was good to me in how he timed my bills until things started to turn around.”
Notable customers began to wander into Deluca’s when the pizzeria was still fleshing out its identity. These customers, including well-known race-track announcers, horse jockeys and bank presidents, would prove to be loyal to Deluca’s and return with friends. Valinoti is still close friends with this group today.
The general public took note. After all, if prominent people were showing up to this little pizzeria, there must have been something enticing them back. Deluca’s began to grow.
Valinoti began to experiment with new recipes and flavors.
“I started to wonder, what all can I do with these ovens? We could make meatballs, maybe. I started to get a little crazier with what I was doing and put a cast-iron skillet in the oven with a hamburger in it. I don’t want my meat well done. I found a butcher I knew in New York, and I buy meat from him every week. I put that meat in the skillet in the oven, and it’s probably the best hamburger anyone has ever had. People from Texas and Oklahoma come in and eat because they’ve heard of this burger.
“I recently wanted to try making some pasta, just to see what happens. This light went off in me. I had to learn and my team did too, and now we make incredible pasta every week. It’s really been a blessing in disguise that I had this crazy idea, and that becomes the evolution and the completing the circle of Deluca’s. You don’t just come here for a pizza. We appeal to a lot more people now.”
As the appeal grew, more lawyers, business professionals, celebrities and politicians found their way inside. But Valinoti isn’t naming names — he has a promise to keep.
“I like the idea of a restaurant as a safe haven. I’ve had people in here whose net worth was larger than the country of Mexico. I couldn’t believe they were here. But when you come to a restaurant, that’s your place to come in and eat and relax. You’re safe here. Politicians and lawmakers and business people come here, and we want to maintain a high level of privacy for them so they feel safe enough to come back here, to come freely, to take care of business. I feel like I’m the guardian of that.”
Valinoti believes that a lot of the appeal of Deluca’s comes from the fact that every customer is treated the same — well.
“You have to treat everyone the same, special. It doesn’t matter who they are. Everyone’s money is green, especially during these days. I come out and ask everyone what they like, and I like criticism. Criticism helped build this. Don’t blow smoke up my ass. Did you like it or not? How can I make this better?”
Valinoti’s guardian role has also been put to the test during the pandemic.
“I stayed home to protect my staff because I traveled a lot, and it was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. When you realize the world’s closed — that’s a heavy thought. We were very lucky that our customers and staff took all of this seriously. A lot of small businesses won’t make it, because as each wave comes through, restaurants have fewer and fewer customers. It’s sad to see restaurant after restaurant close their doors. The pandemic is hard. A restaurant without people isn’t a restaurant.”
A pause fills his story, as Valinoti takes a moment to ponder the odds: what started as a tribute to his parents, a tribute that Valinoti seriously doubted would survive at one point, has spread its roots in Hot Springs and into the timeline of Arkansas history. As restaurants and small businesses close with each pandemic wave, Valinoti is filled with quiet gratitude — a gratitude that stems from empathy and selflessness.
Valinoti is too grateful for the present to worry too much about the future.
“I’m just shocked that every day when I put the key in the door, it opens. I’ve been doing this four days a week for eight years. This was supposed to be in California, and my friend from Las Vegas sent me here,” he said. “I lived in all of the big urban cities. To come somewhere this rural, to make gourmet pizza, blows some people’s minds. I’ve been here nine years, and Arkansas is my home, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m so thankful for all of the people here. This was all just a series of accidents, and I still pinch myself. I’ve evolved the restaurant into an actual restaurant. It was just a cathartic thing that I was trying to do.”
But what started as a simple project to honor his parents is poised for more potential growth.
“I’d love for Deluca’s to always be here. There’s interest in Dallas and Kentucky and Little Rock and Bentonville to spread, but I don’t know how I feel about that,” Valinoti confessed. “I’m a control freak, and there’s only one of me. I don’t know how to operate other restaurants. But maybe that’s on the horizon for me. I love living in Hot Springs and in Arkansas, and I have amazing friends here. I’m so lucky, and I’m so grateful to have wound up here on a whim.
“My [Wall Street] coworkers and I lived by the code that you were only as good as your last trade. Well, I’ve modified that now. You’re only as good as your last pizza. You’re cooking to keep the doors open. And when I look at just how far I’ve come, I hope that my mom and dad are proud of me.”