On July 17, Joe Liguori, the founder of Pizzeria Valdiano and the Hangry Bison, will celebrate 20 years in the restaurant business.
Except he’s actually been in the restaurant business for much, much longer.
“I was born into it, literally,” said Liguori. He was sitting in the Pizzeria Valdiano in Winter Park Village, which was the first of several that he would open over the years and is just a few steps away from his first Hangry Bison, and was reminiscing about his early life in the business.
His parents, Michael and Maria, emigrated from Italy, met while working at the same restaurant and got married. “By the time I was born,” said Liguori, “my parents had a small place up north, so as long as I can remember I’ve been working in restaurants.”
His earliest recollection is at his father’s first restaurant in Orlando, Michael’s, which opened in the early nineteen-eighties. Michael Liguori sold that restaurant to a cousin, also named Michael, and he and Maria opened a restaurant on a then-remote stretch of Alafaya Trail north of UCF. They called the restaurant Peppino’s, which means little Giuseppe or little Joe. “I was Peppino himself!” said Liguori.
Liguori said he was about 11 when Peppino’s opened. His mother would pick him up from school would pick him up from school and take him back to the restaurant where he would do his homework and then help out, busing tables.
His parents sold Peppino’s to his aunt and uncle and bought a restaurant called Papa Tony’s. Throughout college, Liguori worked there or at his aunt and uncle’s restaurant, Amalfi’s. (That aunt and uncle now own Stasio’s in the Milk District.)
[To learn more about the Liguoris and the extended family of Palos, Tardugnos, Lonettis and Savinos and the many restaurants they’ve owned and operated in the area, read this story that ran in the Orlando Sentinel in 2004.]
By the time he graduated from UCF with a business degree, Liguori figured he was done with restaurants. He worked for an IT consulting firm – “A real job,” he said, laughing – and did well. “I was promoted quickly.”
But his entrepreneurial spirit called and he yearned to be his own boss. So he had an idea to follow his passion for soccer and open an indoor soccer center. A friend told him he should look at the old navy base that had recently been shut down. Maybe there was a building that could be repurposed for the soccer center before it was knocked down. The navy base was being demolished to make way for a new development to be called Baldwin Park.
Liguori went to the area to check it out, and as he researched the new development the soccer center idea started to fade away. “The more I found out about the Baldwin Park project the more the whole restaurant instinct kicked.” He thought, “This is a really nice community; they’re going to do a town center and it’ll be a good spot for a restaurant.”
“I’m a pretty logical guy,” he said. The restaurant business “is my strength, I have a passion for this, I know what I’m doing, I’m confident, comfortable.” So he figured if he really wanted to be his own boss, a restaurant might be the way to go.
He contacted the Baldwin Park leasing agent, stayed up all night to put together a business proposal and submitted it. His proposal for a full service restaurant called Pizzeria Valdiano was accepted.
But Baldwin Park was still a long way off from completion, and in the meantime, something else happened.
Liguori and his girlfriend, Ashley (now his wife), went to dinner at Brio in Winter Park Village. The center had been open for a couple of years but Liguori wasn’t familiar with it. He liked the town center atmosphere and thought it, too, would be a good place for a restaurant. And there happened to be a small space for lease next door to Brio. He thought it would be good for a pastry shop or other small operation.
So he contacted the Winter Park Village leasing agent and by chance – “I’m a man of faith,” Liguori said, “I don’t believe in just chance.” – the agent told him that the owner of a sandwich shop next to the movie theater had “pulled a midnight move” two days before that, leaving without notice, so that space was available too.
“I told her ‘I want it, I’ll take it, and by the way, I have a business plan.”
So that space, the one he was sitting in when we spoke recently, became the first Pizzeria Valdiano. (The Baldwin Park location opened in March of 2005, almost exactly three years after Liguori signed the lease agreement – and 18 months later than he had expected to open. Others followed in Lakeland, Pointe Orlando and Waterford Lakes.)
It was also while he was sitting outside the Winter Park Valdiano, fuming about a location deal that had fallen through for a burger concept he wanted to open, that Liguori noticed a neighboring business called Firefly (it had previously been called Taps). He thought the location had more potential.
He walked over and spoke to the owner. “I said: ‘I know the restaurant business, and some days you have great days and some days you just want to lock it up and burn it down and get out. And if you ever have one of those days and want to put it on the market, please call me.”
Three hours later the owner did just that. (Remember, Liguori doesn’t believe in chance.)
And that became the location for the first Hangry Bison, a burger and craft cocktail concept that opened in 2018. The second Hangry Bison, in Winter Garden, opened earlier this year.
Liguori still owns the Winter Park and Lakeland Valdianos (his father now has 25 percent ownership), but it’s the Hangry Bison brand that he plans to grow. “You’re going to see a number of units,” he said, including another in the greater Orlando area to be announced before the end of the year.
And maybe you’ll see Joe and Ashley’s kids working in one of them. Their daughter, Olivia, 16, plans to work the host stand at Bison later this summer, and son Michael, 14, might man the register at Valdiano. JohnLuca, 7, is still a little young. But you can bet he’ll be there one day. It’s in his blood.