Food is often a canvas for love. For Vallery Markel, that canvas is preferably round and filled with curly, crispy-edged pepperoni cups. “Pizza really matters to people in a way that maybe we don’t understand,” says Markel, the eponymous pizzamaker of Val’s Pizza, one of the city’s buzziest new pop-ups.
“Pizza is universally just such a beloved food and it brings people so much joy,” she explains. “And one of my favorite things is taking care of people and being hospitable and being able to create something that people love to eat more than anything in the world.”
This former newspaper restaurant critic can attest to both Markel’s ambitions and her early successes on those fronts.
We all have our own criteria for a perfect pie, but mine seem to align exactly with what Val’s Pizza offers. It’s Neapolitan-inspired but cooked at a slightly lower temperature and for longer. Markel’s dough — just flour, water, salt, and yeast — ferments for at least four days, though she’s experimented with pushing it even longer. The result is a blistered pie almost shellacked with lacey crunch that still manages to deliver a satisfying chew beneath.
Toppings can range from those of the simple margherita, to smoked short rib and mushrooms, Gruyère cheese, caramelized onions, and fried shallots for a pizza-fied riff on the French dip, complete with a side of au jus.
But Val’s own backstory is as full of love as the pizza is an expression of it.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Markel went west after culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh, where she rose through the ranks of what was then a still burgeoning food scene in Portland, Oregon, eventually running the East Glisan Pizza Lounge and even hosting her own pizza-focused podcast.
Portland is also where Markel met Sterling Heights native Erin Wilson. The pair fell in love fast and dreamed up a future together, imagining kids, a house, and a pizza parlor of their own. But Portland’s rapid gentrification made that dream seem impossible, so they struck out for opportunities in Detroit with family nearby.
After initially renting in Woodbridge, the newly married couple bought a big old house in the Old Redford neighborhood with a big old yard to raise chickens in and, soon after, a newborn daughter.
Though opening a pizza joint in Detroit had always been the goal, life and other jobs at places like Selden Standard and Mink kept it perpetually in that realm. But the ample free time created by the COVID-19 pandemic turned Val’s Pizza into a reality, leading to its community-driven ascent.
During the doldrums of the first statewide indoor dining ban, Markel ordered a tabletop pizza oven. There was a three-month wait, and in that time she was called back to work at Mink, where she was kitchen manager. But when the second shutdown hit in November, Markel told herself she would keep busy.
“There’s no point in just sitting around the house and thinking things suck all the time,” Markel says. “So I just started making pizzas with this oven that finally arrived. And I was planning a pizza night just to sell it to some friends. We did it the very next day and we were super stoked because we made a couple hundred dollars.”
That was the week before Thanksgiving, and it went so well they decided to give it a name and an Instagram account — @valspizzadetroit.
By January, the operation had grown to three tabletop pizza ovens and a social media buzz that began attracting perfect strangers. The small crew cranked out 70 pizzas every Monday from the back porch of the Old Redford house, running them out to people waiting in their cars who’d placed their orders four days in advance. Additional pop-ups at Kiesling in February and Folk in March sold out quickly.
The response allowed Markel and Wilson to trade in the tabletop setup for a much larger wood-burning oven affixed to a trailer.
Newly mobile, the couple hopes to bring Val’s Pizza to a wider audience this summer, including at regular Monday pop-ups at Kiesling, a Milwaukee-Junction bar that became a haven for food operators during the pandemic.
Things are moving fast, though, and Val’s is on the hunt for a permanent home a little closer to Old Redford. “Every neighborhood deserves a decent pizzeria that people can walk to and hang out at, where they sponsor softball leagues and they’re just part of the community,” Markel says.
And while Val’s remarkable pizza is certainly the main draw, Markel feels the overwhelming early support might come from the fact that she and Wilson are carving out an inclusive, accessible space in an arena long dominated by macho men.
“It feels very familial to people and it is unique,” Markel says. “It’s not every day that two gay women are running a pizzeria together. It’s really important to the queer community that we’re two queer people doing this together. When I analyze it, I think we’re just doing something a little different. But I’m not inventing anything. I’m just making good pizza.” Perfect pizza, if you ask me.