20 Years In, Chris Bianco Is Still America’s Best Pizza Maker
Pizzeria Bianco and I go back nearly 20 years. In 1996 I was a couple of years out of college, kicking around the country with a musician friend. We ended up in Phoenix for six weeks. My serious interest in food was budding but I was also broke. At a local bookstore, I flipped through one of the oblong Zagat guides detailing America’s top restaurants. For Arizona, the survey’s write-in quotes rhapsodized about the wonders of a two-year-old pizza restaurant run by a Bronx transplant. I could afford dinner there, though I wondered what exactly could make a pizzeria in the Southwest worthy of so much praise.
I soon understood. Pizzeria Bianco crouched in the corner of an open air shopping center called Town & Country on 20th Street and Camelback Road. To reach the restaurant, I walked past an herb and vitamin store, and its weird smell — pharmacy mixed with dried oregano — gave way to the smoky wafts of the pizzeria’s wood-burning oven. Chris Bianco stood behind the counter wielding a peel with a long handle. His massive arms and physical brawn suggested a street fighter, but his calm, enigmatic demeanor more closely resembled Yoda.
Susan Pool, for many years Bianco’s business partner, ran the floor. Her pixie slightness and straight blond hair evoked Ladies of the Canyon-era Joni Mitchell. She found me a seat at the short bar, and I began with a salad of shaved fennel with rounds of oranges and olive oil. This was the first time I’d had this combination, and I’ve judged its balance of licorice, citrus, and peppery flavors against all others since. But the pizza — it rewired my synapses. I ordered the Wiseguy, topped with smoked mozzarella, slices of fennel sausage, and bronzed rings of roasted onions. The crust had yeasty depth, like just-baked bread you can’t help but stuff in your mouth in chunks even as it burns your fingers. Bianco himself smoked the cheese in the oven each morning over pecan wood.
The pizza — it rewired my synapses
I had tasted pizza greatness before in New York, but this was something else. The spirit energizing the restaurant’s team hovered as palpably as the campfire scents. This crew was young and full of justified pride. The misshapen pies sprang from the Neapolitan-American tradition but achieved higher glory under a freethinker’s close attention and unusual care with quality ingredients. In that shopping center, Chris Bianco catalyzed the modern pizzeria revolution. I ate many meals at Pizzeria Bianco during that stay in Phoenix. Not just for the food. Watching Bianco and his crew inspired me to pursue excellence in my own life.
I didn’t return to the restaurant until ten years later. By then America’s food world knew what it had in Bianco. He’d won the regional James Beard award for Best Chef in 2003. Ed Levine named his pies the best in the country in his book, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven; Jeffrey Steingarten of Voguedeemed them the best in the world. Bianco’s story had been widely recounted: A high school dropout, he flew to Phoenix on a whim and felt a connection with the place. He began selling pizzas out of a grocery store in the late 1980s. He briefly relocated to Santa Fe as a sous chef for cookbook legend Deborah Madison, who was running a restaurant at the time, and then he traveled in Italy for two years, connecting to his ancestry.
Bianco returned to Phoenix to open the pizzeria in 1994 and two years later moved the flagship from the shopping center to its current address, a sturdy, boxy brick building (once a machine shop) in Heritage Square downtown. This began the era of the lines, a ritualized wait during which regulars would arrive well before the restaurant’s 5 p.m. opening and camp out on benches, often self-policing by keeping a list of who arrived in what order. A year later, in response to the crowds, Bianco and Pool launched Bar Bianco in a renovated century-old house next door to the pizzeria.
Passing through town in 2006, I marveled at the spectacle that had arisen around the pizzeria. A local friend and I waited for an hour and a half, sipping a Valpolicella red on the bar’s covered porch, before a table came available for us. Time can embellish formative memories, but the pizza and the restaurant’s frisson lived up to my recollections. In the frenzy Bianco stood steady and center stage — head down, ladling tomato sauce on one circle of dough after another, reaching for rounds of mozzarella and the bottle of olive oil, seeking perfection through repetition.
For years Bianco swore that he’d never duplicate his pizzeria. He started a sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, in 2001 as a showcase for the bread baked by his brother, Marco, who by that time also made the pizza dough each day. Chris maintained, though, that he’d be the one forming and baking the pies. But in 2010, the asthma he suffered acutely as a child flared from prolonged exposure to wood smoke and flour. It forced him to temporarily step away from the kitchen. In surveying the business from a more operational role, he felt confident that he and the team were capable of expansion while maintaining his sky-high standards.
He began by returning to the Town & Country shopping center where he’d first gained fame. At first he called the place Italian Restaurant, serving pastas fashioned from Arizona-grown durum wheat as well as antipasti and salads highlighting the bounty of the farmers with whom he’d cultivated relationships over the years. Without his name out front, customers didn’t respond. Soon enough, he hung up his original Pizzeria Bianco sign and incorporated pizzas into the menu mix. He partnered abroad with British chef Jamie Oliver on restaurants called Union Jacks. And last year, he opened a pizzeria in a building that dates to 1909 in downtown Tucson.
Chris Bianco arguably remains the most revered pizzaiolo in America
Even in an era where exceptional pizza can be found across the country, Chris Bianco arguably remains the most revered pizzaiolo in America. Like other industry success stories, he’s balancing his longstanding hands-on approach with a newer role as brand-builder and figurehead. The big question looms: Has be been able to replicate the mastery and electric intimacy at each of his businesses?
Nearly two decades after my first treasured encounters with his cooking, I recently ate at all of Bianco’s Arizona restaurants to find out.
PIZZERIA BIANCO, TUSCON
At first glance, the Tucson outpost had a scruffy hipness that could place it anywhere in the country serving any sort of food. Reclaimed woods and a weathered door help separate the dining room from a tchotchke-filled bar with soda fountain charm. Behind a counter lined with pressed tin loomed the telltale centerpiece: a large wood-burning oven, and a young cook shoveling pizzas in and out of its blazing mouth.
Like at each of Bianco’s restaurants, the Tucson menu offers the same half-dozen pizzas: cheeseless marinara, the classic margherita, Sonny Boy (tomato sauce, mozzarella, salami, olives), Rosa (red onions, parmesan, rosemary, crushed pistachios), Biancoverde (a white pizza with arugula), and my old pal Wiseguy.
I’ve put away many superior pizzas over the years and this one ranked strong.
The version here, my first of the trip, took me back: the crust’s lip was full but not puffy, more Julia Roberts than Angelina Jolie, and the lacy mozzarella, butterscotch-tinged onions, and hunks of fennel sausage showed a generous hand. I’ve put away many superior pizzas over the years and this one ranked strong. It did Bianco justice.
A separate sheet detailed five or so daily-changing small plates, and two of these didn’t much impress. Asparagus season begins in Arizona in February (!). My half-dozen spears arrived over-roasted and twiggy, though a sunny-side-up egg atop oozed fetchingly. Mild, locally raised Navajo-Churro lamb came as meatballs with chickpeas, which sounded intriguing and Arabic-influenced, but this batch was dry and crumbly, and the butter sauce with the accompanying spinach tasted too rich against them.
Square-jawed general manager Stalloan (pronounced “Stallone”) Iacono worked the room, lending a red-blooded charisma that helped fill Bianco’s absence. (Though he checks in on all of his places multiple times a week, he obviously can’t be everywhere at once.) I’d arrived early. By 6:30 p.m. people spilled onto the sidewalks. No surprise that Tucson was glorying in its ascendance to pizza royalty.
PANE BISTRO, PHOENIX
The next day I had lunch at Pane Bianco in Phoenix. Against one white wall, over a mantel and under a pair of antlers, hung a painting of Ace, Bianco’s childhood dog, painted by his father, whose art appears in each of Bianco’s restaurants. The sandwiches, built on crusty focaccia perfumed from wood smoke, came layered with ingredients both Italian-American and Middle-American: tomato, basil, and mozzarella; chicken salad and tuna salad. A simple but potent combination of sopressata, aged provolone, and roasted red peppers stood out.
At dinner the menu leans a little more ambitious. I returned for a Sonnyboy pizza. It looked stunning, the reds of the sauce and the salami strips bleeding into one another, but the crust tipped over to the tougher side of chewy. I wouldn’t want this to be a first-timer’s taste of Bianco’s handicraft. At night the menu includes a few Italian-American classics: A lusty lasagna smothered in crushed tomatoes and cheese and a side of traditional beef meatballs dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano proved more seductive than the pizza.
PIZZERIA BIANCO, HERITAGE SQUARE
Dinner at the downtown Pizzeria Bianco flagship on a balmy Friday night felt like a carnival — the way I remembered it from nine years ago. People occupied every seat inside the restaurant and on the brick patio that wound around the front and left of the building; would-be diners lingered in standing clusters and on benches along Heritage Square. Two friends and I ordered beers at Bar Bianco and hung out less than half an hour before being ushered to our table at the pizzeria. Major bonus to the multiple locations dispersing business throughout the city: The place still bustled but the wait was just long enough to build anticipation.
It paid off. These were best-in-show pies, the crust charred and pillowy and the toppings lavish. In additional to a Wiseguy and a margherita I ordered a Rosa for the first time, admiring the intricate chemistry between the stinging red onion, the piney rosemary, and the earthy-sweet pistachios. Our server kept the pace brisk, not unfriendly but certainly with a sense of momentum.
PIZZERIA BIANCO, TOWN & COUNTRY SHOPPING CENTER
I could have left Phoenix happy then, but at the latest Town & Country location my experience defied expectation: I encountered Bianco 2.0, a pizzeria-trattoria hybrid that embodies all of his strengths as a chef. It’s where he spends the most time. A health food herb shop still occupies the mall, and a blast of its medicinal air breezed by as our group of three settled at a table outside. Our waiter was relaxed and kind. Inside, the restaurant spread across two rooms: One with the kitchen and a long, wood-planked bar; the other was a proper dining room decorated with sage and cream wallpaper, chandeliers, and a wall crammed with paintings in mismatched frames.
At the latest Town & Country location my experience defied expectation.
Then the man himself appeared on the patio, his signature shock of bed head now veering more toward salt than pepper. Bianco ambled down a row flanked by tables and checked in on customers. Eyes looked up at him and illuminated; it was like watching runway lights flicker on at dusk in slow motion. He reached us and we chatted about the pastas he makes and serves only at this restaurant. He was particularly pleased with the night’s special — ridged cavatelli, a recipe that harkened to his family’s roots in Puglia. Al dente and hearty, they kept their integrity among hunks of sausage and broccoli. Vegetables dazzled: The asparagus here was plump and slightly smoky, blanketed with parmesan shavings and served with a wedge of lemon. A tangled salad of watermelon radishes, fennel, and snow peas sang a tune of spring that most of the country won’t hear for at least another month.
I peeked inside and saw Bianco, his asthma under control these days, reach for the long-handled peel and slide it under a pizza. Need I even say that the pies were transcendent?