I didn’t need to look at a clock to know what time it was. As the minutes had passed, the tone of the surrounding conversation had changed; the soft, languid murmurs of forty people opining on half as many things changed to a tense buzzing, more and more frequently hissing “Is it time?” A couple men had gotten up from their chairs and eyed the door nervously while keeping the rest of us well in sight in case there was movement. As tension rose to match the record breaking thermometer, someone made a move. A young couple seated at one of the farther tables by the door jumped up and approached the door. In seconds the rest of the crowd surged forward, a panting mass of humanity all jockeying for position with a passive-aggressive subtlety.
When the door to Pizzeria Bianco finally did open some five minutes later, I was surprised that the group of eight that we had found some thirty minutes earlier had morphed into a line of more than fifty people, a significant portion of which did not get into the first seating. Even on a Wednesday, at five o’clock in the height of the August heat, Chris Bianco draws eager crowds at his eponymous restaurant on 7th and Adams St. in downtown Phoenix.
While other chefs who have been accorded similar accolades flaunt their prominence and merchandise themselves like brands, Chris flies under the radar, focusing instead on preserving the experience and incredible quality that have won him such praise from the culinary literati. And what an experience it is! One is struck first by the setting, a small brick house in Heritage Square, refurnished into an open kitchen and dining area with “cozy” room for forty. The burnished, exposed ducting and vaulted ceiling gives the otherwise small interior an airiness that belies its square footage. Whether seated at the bar or at the ten or so tables, one has a clear view of the kitchen and its incredible wood burning oven, the forge where Chris and his staff meld crust and toppings into a symphony of taste.
After we were seated at a four top near the back, the server came by to take our drink orders and explicate on the relatively small menu. Pizzeria Bianco, like Chris, is focused almost exclusively on the delectable hybrid of New York and Neapolitan style pizza that has won “Best Pizza in America” praise from several publications, and you won’t find much else on the menu. We decided, at the suggestion of our server, to start with the Antipasto ($12.00), and two pizzas, the classical Marinara ($10.00) and Margherita ($11.00) as well as two iced teas for my parents and water for my brother and I. After about five minutes, a waitress came by with fresh bread and olive oil, complimentary with the antipasto or salad and $2.00 otherwise. Just looking at the sliced bread was enough to make me salivate and the first taste, bathed in olive oil was a revelation in simple pleasures. The bread was chewy with an open crumb and crisp crust that one can only get with the kind of oven Chris employs. The olive oil however, redefined what this now ubiquitous oil could be. Extremely floral and bright, the olive oil tasted like summer made liquid, more akin to fine wine then the run of the mill and relatively flavorless supermarket variety could ever hope to be. We were so struck with the taste that we asked the waitress from whom Chris bought his olive oil and she soon returned with the website of Queen Creek Olive Mill, a local company operating the United State’s only olive mill.
Soon thereafter our antipasto arrived. Arranged on an oval plate were Chris’s rendition of eggplant parmesan, roasted red peppers, cremini mushrooms, green beans, a couple varieties of beets, two small wedges of a hard cheese, and four slices of Sopressata. Each vegetable was the epitome of its kind, bursting with flavor and a caramelized sweetness from the oven roasting. The mushrooms in particular were outstanding, easily the best I have ever had with an outer caramelization one would more readily associate with meat, not a meager fungi.
Pizzas were flying in out of the oven by the time we finished our appetizer, and I was entranced by the ballet that was Chris and his sous chefs. At times juggling a cell phone, always chatting up a server or a guest, Chris was clearly in his element flowing from pizza to pizza as his sous chefs dished up salads, retrieved dough and moved pizzas in the oven. Chris’s pizzas bake for about six to seven minutes, long enough to char the outer edges and cook the toppings at 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long for our pizzas to arrive, each about 11 inches, drizzled with olive oil and resting on their own individual plates.
If the bread and antipasto had been revelatory, this was near euphoric. The crust at the center was almost paper thin with an inner chewiness that played against the crisp exterior. The thinness of the crust made each of the six slices delicate but not so much to make eating by hand a difficult proposition. I gave the knife and fork routine only a passing thought before digging in, hands first, and savoring my first bite of the Marinara. Atop the crust was a sauce of fresh tomatoes, probably picked only the day before and bursting with sweetness. Joining the roughly pureed tomatoes were thinly shaved garlic and basil leaves from the herb garden outside. While I enjoy complex food preparations as much and perhaps more than most, the simplicity of the pizza allowed Chris’s incredible ingredients to display their innate characteristics. And then there was the crust. It was at once shatteringly crisp, with a pillowy soft interior, and a flavor that screamed umami with every bite. Lightly caressed with olive oil, rising in hills and valleys as it encircled the pizza, the crust was for me the high point of the experience. I have been cooking pizzas on a weekly basis for years, trying all sorts of techniques and recipes to achieve the sort of crust I had only seen in movies and at times, had the fortune to taste. Chris Bianco’s crust surpassed my wildest expectations, again redefining something seemingly mundane as pizza crust as grand culinary achievement.
As good as the crust or the sauce or the toppings were, it was the marriage of all these elements in perfect proportion that made the pizza the best I have ever tasted. My sentiments were echoed by my father and brother, both of whom were grunting with pleasure as they slowly enjoyed their Margherita with its fresh, homemade mozzarella and basil topping. We could have easily ordered and eaten another pizza but we ended the meal satisfied. Frankly I would hate to order too much and take the pizza home; the thought of reheating Chris’s pizza in a microwave feels vaguely sacrilegious, as if I were destroying a beautiful painting or defacing a sculpture.
Pizzeria Bianco is at once a neighborhood pizzeria and a rare celebration of food as an uncompromised pleasure. While the food might be art, albeit vanishingly temporal, the humble spirit behind its creation lives on, day in and day out.
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