Chef Profile: Liz Valenti

Chef Profile: Liz Valenti

P izza Mondays at Meadowlark give birth to a new pizzeria

By Theresa Thinnes

In the restaurant business, some ideas, like food, just spring up organically.

Such is the case at Meadowlark where Monday nights are now known as Pizza Mondays. Chef Elizabeth Valenti initially began making pizzas at Meadowlark to pass around the bar as guests waited for a table in the dining room.

Making pizza was a natural for Valenti who spent much of her life in Chicago where she grew up in a big Italian family.  With a Neopolitan mom, grandparents, five sisters and nine aunts who are all “amazing cooks,” Valenti was bound to end up back in the kitchen after taking up accounting for years in between.

Elizabeth Wiley, owner of Meadowlark, met Elizabeth Valenti in college and the two have been friends ever since.  Valenti knew she’d love to work with Wiley again and, though Wiley had asked, the timing hadn’t been right.

A motorcycle accident was the perfect time for a transition and this time when Wiley asked “Are you ready?” Valenti said yes.

Wiley was preparing to move Meadowlark to its current location. With a degree in organization behavior from Northwestern, Valenti was quickly put in charge of the move and had the skills to help to make it happen fast and seamlessly.

“We were open at the old location Sunday, moved Monday and reopened that Thursday,” said Valenti.

“For me, this is a dream come true,” she says of her work at the Meadowlark. She is one of three chefs along with Wiley and Dave Rawson.

“The three of us have a great relationship. I don’t think there’s anything Dave, Wiley and I can’t figure out. We could tackle anything that comes our way,” Valenti said.

As a chef, Valenti has worked in more than a few high-demand situations.  As lead executive chef providing three meals each day at Harpo Studios, Valenti said she provided hearty family-style meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner for Oprah Winfrey and her production staff. Of cooking for Ms. Winfrey, Valenti said she has a “quest for perfection” and “pays attention to little things.”

As a former bread baker at Chef Joyce Goldstein’s Square One Restaurant in San Francisco after graduating from the California Culinary Institute, Valenti already knew about dough. At Meadowlark, her love of working with dough was “re-ignited,” and pizzas were about to be tossed.

The idea of making pizzas at Meadowlark began to take hold. Wiley began checking out pizza schools. Her pick? Valenti went to Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli and studied with master pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani in San Francisco.  Among her classmates was Elizabeth Falkner, a well-known San Francisco-based chef and runner-up on The Next Iron Chef. Falkner is executive pastry chef and owner of Citizen Cake and executive chef and co-owner of Orson, both in San Francisco.

The pizza school experience proved completely wonderful for Valenti who enjoyed ten hours of classes each day followed by another seven or eight hours of hanging out at the restaurant each evening during the weeklong class.

“We were great allies in that class,” Liz said of learning all about pizza-making alongside Falkner.

Apparently, Liz made an impression, too. Chef Tony asked Liz to accompany him to the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in March as his dough person. There, he won the Pizza-making World Championship with Liz’s dough.

The following month, Pizza Mondays were going live at Meadowlark. But first, a pizza oven would be needed. Great pizza cooks at very hot temperatures, Valenti explained. A special oven designed just for baking pizzas is usually necessary. But that wasn’t about to stop the ever-innovative Meadowlark team.

“We tricked out the confection oven with (ceramic) floor tiles. Now, the oven’s maximum temperature can reach 550 to 720 degrees. Such a high temperature is hot enough to get the charred quality Valenti seeks for her pizza toppings. That’s the reason that Liz (Valenti) chars pineapple pizza toppings beforehand but cooks the sausage right on the pizzas in small enough pieces so that it’s thoroughly cooked and has that just-sizzled taste. A variety of amazing topping combinations are offered each week, such as fig, blue cheese and shoestring onions. The pizza also has some pretty amazing dough. It’s a six-hour process to prepare the dough. The ingredients are simple – just yeast, olive oil, salt and bread flour. The starter dough batch came from San Francisco and is kept cold so that new batches can be prepared in a six-hour process each week.” The “gravy,” as her Italian family calls sauce, is based on Valenti’s mother’s recipe, thickened up a little.

Now, the hunt is on for a great location to open a second restaurant that features pizza and other Italian fare. The new restaurant is expected to be called “Piccolo.”

The chefs are hoping for a place that has an urban feel to it and it will appeal to everybody, with the stated goal of building it into a destination spot for the entire Miami Valley.

Already, that has happened at the Meadowlark location on Pizza Mondays where the dining room was full by 6 p.m. on a mid-September Monday, including two big parties from Yellow Springs.  The newly renovated private dining room was brimming as the guests were among the first to enjoy the just renovated space with a new bank of windows. Soon to be added are bookshelves all around the top of the walls that will hold their extensive library of cookbooks.

People grow and evolve (working) here,” says Valenti.  “Wiley wants people to soar and to figure out what they are passionate about. I work a ton of hours and it’s nothing but exciting to get up early to go into work. Integrity rules here,” she says.

And pizza. “It’s as if we were incubating our baby.”

Pizza Mondays with Chef Liz Valenti at The Meadlowark Restaurant, 5531 Far Hills Ave. in Centerville for more information visit meadowlarkresaturant.com or call 937.434.4750.

Reach DCP freelance writer Theresa Thinnes at TheresaThinnes@daytoncitypaper.com.

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