The art and science of an award-winning pizza

Alabama Living Magazine

By Scotty E. Kirkland

You can find some of the world’s best pizza in Madison, Alabama. Go ahead and read that sentence again. From his base of operations at Valentina’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar, chef Joe Carlucci is sharing his lifelong passion for pizza with the world, one record at a time.

At last year’s International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, Carlucci earned his sixth and seventh trophies. He is the reigning “Pizza Maker of the Year” and winner of the coveted prize for “Best Non-Traditional Style Pizza in the World.” His victorious pie featured a mango chutney reduction topped with crabmeat and lobster, seasoned with Italian parsley and red pepper flakes. A non-traditional pizza, indeed.

The Italian classic, tiramisu, is a feature of the dessert menu.

The awards come from the members of the World Pizza Champions, a non-profit organization of about 200 members devoted to promoting the craft through competitions, educational outreach and public service. Carlucci is no stranger to the group. In fact, he is a founding member. Carlucci’s pizza-making travels have taken him to Germany, Italy, Spain and even China. He has appeared on more than a dozen television programs, including the “Today” show.

Last fall, Carlucci relocated Valentina’s to larger quarters on Huntsville Brownsferry Road.

The nightly window for this pizza perfection is tight as locals elbow in to grab familiar favorites at the new location. Plan your trip to Valentina’s in advance and make a reservation. Then arrive hungry. You won’t leave that way.

The more carnivorous members of your dinner party may want to try “The Godfather,” a pizza piled high with soppressata salami, two kinds of Italian sausage, charred pepperoni, bacon and meatballs in a red sauce. Lighter fare includes “The Valentina,” made with a sweet sauce, caramelized onions, peppadew peppers, heirloom cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. There are pies for the less adventurous, too, and for those who appreciate the simple pleasures of a cheese pizza that is anything but “plain.”

The appetizer of choice is called 5 Boroughs. An homage to Carlucci’s New York City roots, the dish is a quintet of fried goat cheese balls with peppers on a bed of arugula. And sweets? Get the Dessert Board and try a bite of four Italian classics like cannoli and tiramisu. 

Valentina’s in Madison offers a plentiful variety of Italian dishes including hand-crafted pizza, salads, garlic bread, bruschetta and more.

Life of pie

Born and raised in New York, Carlucci has called north Alabama home for about 15 years. He got his start in an Empire State pizzeria as a teenager. “I wasn’t even allowed to look at the sauce,” Carlucci told’s Matt Wake last year. He started as a dishwasher, then worked the service counter and as a delivery driver. “After all that I moved up to actually making a pizza.” 

A few years and a few thousand pizzas later, Carlucci came under the wing of pie-spinning mentor Tony Gemignani, who runs more than two dozen pizzerias in California, Nevada and Idaho. The two were asked to come to Alabama to consult with the owners of Tortora’s Wood Fired Grille in Huntsville’s Hampton Cove community. “They kept bringing me back down to help with their restaurant,” Carluccia recalls. “I ended up loving it down here. I moved to help run Tortora’s, then ended up branching out on my own.”

Chef Joe Carlucci, “Pizza Maker of the Year,” holds two Guinness World Records.

In an interview on National Public Radio last summer, Carlucci talked about the science of pizza. What’s the alchemy of a really good pie? The make-or-break ingredient? Well, that’s complicated, he says. “Everything from flour temperature to water temperature, to mix time, to the humidity outside. Everything working together makes the perfect pizza. The structure. The taste. Everything.”

Carlucci thinks deeply about the “flavor profiles” his ingredients create atop his award-winning crusts. And he is serious about his dough, too, but we’re not talking about money. Valentina’s imports its flour from Naples, Italy.

His passion and prior association with Tony Gemignani led Carlucci to sign on as a founding member of the World Pizza Champions. For Carlucci, the group is about more than competitions and trophies. “The team is dedicated to promoting pizza making as a respected craft and viable career choice,” he says. 

“The selection of new members is a process we take very seriously. Inclusion on the team is through invitation only. Each member has dedicated years of practice and entrepreneurial energy to the craft.”

Members of the group work “for the common good of the craft.” One of the ways Carlucci contributes to this goal is through his competitive spirit. He holds two Guinness World Records. The first is for the highest pizza toss, coming in at 21 feet, 5 inches. The second is for the largest pizza base spun in one minute. “I love to compete,” he says. “When I had the opportunity to compete for two Guinness World Records, I had to do it.”

A mural of young Valentina, daughter of the owner, adorns the inside of the restaurant’s new location on Huntsville Brownsferry Road.

Still, amid all his accolades, Carlucci is quick to sing the praises of his staff. “I give them all the kudos, all the respect,” he told Matt Wake. “I’m gonna be right on the line with them. I’m going to be doing the dishes tonight, I’m gonna be jumping in making pizzas…. We all work together.” 

The next generation 

The restaurant is named for his daughter, a budding pizza chef herself at age 11. A mural of young Valentina Carlucci in a chef’s hat adorns the inside of the new location. Following in her father’s competitive culinary footsteps, she is a pizza magician in her own right and holds a Guinness World Kids Record for the highest pizza toss at 13 feet, 9 inches.

From his restaurant’s name and his support of the World Pizza Champions to his appearance on “Master Chef Kids,” it’s obvious that Carlucci takes seriously the role of mentor. His advice for aspiring young chefs? “Never give up. Don’t listen to the negative people. Just prove them wrong.”

That’s good advice from a championship chef who is doing everything right in North Alabama.

Valentina’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar
25783 Huntsville Brownsferry Road
Madison, AL 35756

256-325-2240 and on Facebook

4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday; 
4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday


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