As a food blogger, I have a list of must try places that I hope to get to before I simply have had enough of maintaining a blog, or I get blown up by terrorists. While the list is fairly comprehensive, there is what I call “my triple crown” of restaurants that I definitely wanted to try before I get much older.
The Belmont Stakes of my Triple Crown desire is Durant’s. I have eaten there. Many times. And I think that it is the best overall dining experience to be had in the Valley of the Sun. Steaks, crushed red velvet wallpaper, servers in tuxedos. I simply adore Durant’s. The Kentucky Derby of my trio is definitely Mary Elaine’s, considered to be the finest restaurant in Arizona. Set within the confines of the beautiful Phoenician Resort, the place has an elaborate menu and a wine list that makes your jaw hit the floor when you see it. But that is for another time, such as when I win Powerball.
The Preakness for me is Pizzeria Bianco, and as luck would have it, a fellow chowhound organized a group of us to try out what has been called “the best pizza in America.” Since there were nine of us (Seth, JK, Bellana, Gayle, Nancy, Eric, Dominique, Jon and John), this gave us the added benefit of not having to wait the normal two (2) hours for a table, but instead allowed us to make a reservation.
We all arrived a few minutes shy of 8 PM and were told there would be about a 20 minute wait. I could see why. The place is small and it can only hold so many people. So, some of our group got drinks from the Bar Bianco next door while the rest of us had some food talk. It was a perfect night to be outside, and the large numbers of people waiting for pizza was quite incredible.
When we were seated, the nine of us were put toward the back of the place near the pizza “oven.” Within seconds, we were handed menus and our server appeared asking for our drink orders. Most had water to go along with their alcohol, but even at Pizzeria Bianco, I ordered a Diet Coke ($1.50). Our waiter headed over to get our drinks and we reviewed the menus thoroughly deciding which pizza sounded the best to try. In the end, we decided to each get what we wanted and then do a little horse trading so we could sample other types of the pies.
When our server returned, we placed a substantial order. Of the pizzas, we ordered the Wise Guy ($13.00), the Margherita ($10.00), the Sonny Boy ($12.00) and the Biancoverde ($13.00). We also wanted to kick off the evening right, so we got a selection of various salads including the Antipasto ($11.00), the Farmers’ Market Salad ($8.00), and the Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil ($9.00). There were also a couple of orders of the Spiedini ($9.00). Our server headed back over to the kitchen and placed our order.
A few moments passed and a flurry of servers arrived with three plates of crusty, rustic bread served with sides of olive oil. Thankfully, the three plates were enough to keep the whole table happy without having to reach across several places for it. The bread was excellent with its chewy crust and smokey flavor. Many of us thought the olive oil was excellent because of its rich flavor. This was a pleasant way to start the meal.
Only a few more moments passed and we were given our salads and starters. The Spiedini arrived with two skewers of Fontina Cheese wrapped with prosciutto and then set in the wood fired oven. The wood skewers were charred on the ends and the proscuitto was smokey, but the cheese was warmed through. This won rave reviews from Gayle, Nancy, Eric and Dominique. It looked delicious and satisfying.
At the far end of the table, the order of Antipasto was delivered and the group set upon trying the various components. The wood roasted vegetables, sopresatta and bits of cheese were lounging on the plate as the plate was liberally handed around. It all looked quite good. JK said it would be a perfect dish for people who weren’t too keen on vegetables. It also received big thumbs up from the rest of the group.
The simple preparation of the Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil was exceptionally colorful. Slices of the cheese and tomato were drizzled with olive oil and garnished with the basil. JK was happily munching along and stating that the preparation was “perfect” because of its simplicity. I was offered a bite, but was too focused on my salad.
And that salad was the Farmers’ Market Salad. This was a salad that is different each time as it is made with whatever the local markets have available. This time around, the salad featured microgreens, two kinds of sliced apple, small crumbles of blue cheese and chopped almonds. The dressing was a tangy vinaigrette. In a word: fantastic. The two apples were Granny Smith and (perhaps) Honey Crisp. They were not overly sweet and really gave a satisfying crunch to the salad. The blue cheese was slightly mild. The greens were exceptionally fresh. My only complaint was that I wish the nuts had played a larger supporting role.
We were all quite happy with the beginnings of our meal and we began chatting away about food and the latest gossip on our favorite places. I noticed how lovely the builiding was inside with its exposed brick, tall windows and high ceilings. It was also quite loud because there wasn’t much to absorb the noise.
About 10 minutes passed and our server began the procession of bringing our pizzas to the table. The first to hit the table was the Margherita Pizza that Gayle and Nancy were splitting. It was a basic production of a puffy and slightly chewy crust, lightly brushed with a seasoned tomato sauce and then topped with mozzarella slices and basil leaves. Through a non-aggression pact, I was able to secure a piece and loved it from the first bite. What wasn’t there to like about this? The crust was delicious with its bits of burnt and bubbled flesh. The tomato sauce was pleasing because it wasn’t trying to be anything more than a good sauce. The cheese, being fresh, was outstanding, and the basil was the perfect variable to bring this pizza together. Simple, complete and rustic, this was decadent.
Dominique’s Sonny Boy pizza featured slices of salami and Gaeta olives. This was the one pizza I did not try as I am not fond of olives or salami on pizza, but Dominique really enjoyed it as did Eric. The mixture of tastes from the salami and olives gave this presentation a unique flair. It seemed to please everyone, as I heard no complaints about it, although Dominique said that after tasting the other pizzas, she would probably get the Margherita next time.
The Wise Guy put Eric into fits as he was overwhelmed by the scent of the pizza. It was amazing to the sight because it had an abundance of fennel sausage that covered nearly every inch. Coupled with the caramelized onions, this was a stellar taste combination. It was also a carnivores dream. I loved the piece I was able to talk Eric out of. The sausage was out of this world due to the fennel addition. The onions were creamy and smooth. The smoked mozzarella just blew the socks off of me because the taste was divine. This was clearly the favorite at our end of the table.
My Biancoverde Pizza was sublime. I adored the fresh arugula on top and the melted cheeses hiding below the colorful green show. I am not sure if I liked the Fresh Mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano or Ricotta the most, but I am glad they all made an appearance. Gayle isn’t a fan of Ricotta cheese, but she said it was quite good on this pizza. I loved every bite of this pizza because it was subtle and yet complex on so many levels. What I did discover, however, was that it was even better after it had cooled a bit and the cheeses had started to firm up a bit. The soft cheeses, the chewy crust and the crisp arugula had the perfect texture mix. Wow indeed!
There were only a few leftovers after we had done our damage and we asked for our bill. The total for eight pizzas, several salads, some starters and an antipasto was $200 and change, including tax. I heard no complaints about the total and I know I thought that for the quality and craftsmanship of the pizzas, this was a bargain. Service was quite good and our server was aimiable and engaging, but did seemed to think it humorous that I requested Ovaltine. We paid our bill and departed to the outside to compare notes.
The general conclusion was that Pizzeria Bianco has amazingly good pizza. John said it was the best pizza he had. There were plenty of similar raves. Nancy, a native of New York, said that it helds its own against the pizza in NYC. We all agreed that we would come back again and again.
For myself, I went back to the critic who said that Pizzeria Bianco has the best pizza in the United States. Is it? Well, I have had pizza in NYC, Pepe’s and Sallie’s in Connecticut, Pizza Pie in Chicago and a lot of pizza in Phoenix (from Red Devil to Pizza Hut). In my opinion, Pizzera Bianco has the finest pizza I have ever had and I would never hesitate to return for a meal.
But that leads to another question as to whether or not it is worth waiting two hours for a pizza from Pizzeria Bianco. My answer is no. Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that this is pizza. As much as I like eating and how much I especially liked Pizzeria Bianco, I do not think there is any food worth waiting two hours for. However, there is a way around that by getting 6 - 10 of your friends together and getting a reservation.
So, I now have two of my triple crown down and just need to fine a way to afford Mary Elaine’s. On my salary, that will take a lot of planning and saving, or I could play the trump card:
J., if you love me...
(P.S. A very big thank you to John for setting up the reservation for the nine of us!)
623 Adams Street (on Heritage Square)
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday: 5PM – 10PM. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Notes: No take out. Reservations for parties of 6 - 10.
Additional photos available at www.feastinginphoenix.com