Joey Valenza is Melo's pizzaiola from the north.
Joey Valenza is as south city as it gets. He lives on the Hill, his family's Blues City Deli is a Benton Park institution and his pizzeria in the garage behind the deli is quickly becoming the go-to spot for south-siders craving Neapolitan pie. It's no wonder, then, that he feels like he's letting you in on a secret when he tells you where he grew up.
"My family and I are north-side Italians," explains the owner of Melo's Pizzeria (2438 McNair Avenue, rear, 314-833-4489)
. "Honestly, I feel like a little bit of an exile down here. My grandfather grew up in north city, my dad grew up in Jennings and I'm from Bellefontaine Neighbors."
Valenza credits his family's deep-rooted local history for igniting his passion for food. "My dad's family was in the produce business at Union Market, where the Dome [at America's Center] is now," says Valenza. "In fact, my grandfather Melo was a delivery driver on Produce Row. My grandmother's family has a stand there, and that's how they met."
After his family moved to the county, Valenza's father Vince kept alive the Italian traditions they had cultivated in the city. Saturdays were especially memorable for Valenza, who fondly recalls the spread his dad would put together for the lunch table.
"Every Saturday morning my dad would go to a deli and get Volpi salami, whole Sicilian olive salad, Romano cheese and Italian bread," Valenza recalls. "We'd just eat it all day."
Those lazy Saturdays may have stuck with him, but the family's Christmas Eve pizza parties are what turned him on to the art of pizza making. Every year, his grandmother would make sfincione
, a thick, Sicilian-style pizza for dinner, topped with crushed tomatoes, green onions, Romano cheese and anchovies. "As a kid, I didn't like it too much," Valenza confides. "But it got into my blood. I guess it came out later."
By "later," Valenza means 2013, the year his his father bought the Blues City Deli property after years of leasing it. The lot came with a small garage out back that the younger Valenza wanted to turn into a bakery. The plan was to make bread for the deli, but as he honed his baking skills, he developed a passion for making pizza that could not be sated by the backyard kettle grill he'd rigged to make his wood-fired pies. He nixed the bakery plan, decided upon a pizzeria and ordered a domed Ferrara pizza oven from Naples to cook his Neapolitan-style pies.
Valenza hasn't had much of a break since firing up Melo's ovens this past winter, but he took some time out to share his thoughts on the St. Louis dining scene, his after-work go-to and why you should never bash Provel when you come into his restaurant.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That I am a Provel lover. We don’t offer it at the pizzeria (yet), so a lot of people see this as an open door to trash-talk the beautiful cheese concoction… it breaks my heart.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
A cup of coffee. I can barely speak before I have it.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To be able to stop time. It goes by too fast, and there never seems to be enough of it.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
All the new restaurants opening downtown. That's huge for the city.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Mike Emerson. The man makes some great barbecue and has a beautiful beard.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Hana Chung and the crew opening Good Fortune.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Well, sometimes I can be pretty frank, so I guess a hot dog.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Professional musician. Food and music go hand in hand.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
At the pizzeria, it has to be ranch dressing.
What is your after work hangout?
Hodak’s. There's nothing better than walking down the street after work and having an ice cold Bud and some sticky wings.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Every once in a while I really loves me some Totino’s pizza rolls.
What would be your last meal on earth?
A Saullo’s pizza
— the pizza I ate growing up in North County.
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