August 12, 2009
Pizzeria Bianco - Phoenix, AZ - The Quintessential Pizza
The waits are notorious, often 3 to 4 hours in the burning hot sun, just for a prized table at one of the most celebrated pizzerias in the country. Pizzeria Bianco, a mainstay in the Heritage Square section of Phoenix for 15 years, housed in a brick building fit for an old-school bakery, remains one of the toughest tables in the city because of its no-reservation policy. Fans and afficionados wait under the sun or more likely in the air-conditioned confines of Bar Bianco, a charming bungalow next door which features a well-put wine list and beer menu. It doesn't hurt that the servers at Bar Bianco are charming and attractive. It certainly made our hour-long wait more than bearable.
We arrived in the thick of the night, or at least a weeknight in Phoenix, when the summer air is dense like an invisible fog, and the sub 100 degree heat persists beyond sundown. On various occasions I cooled off with a sparkling wine at Bar Bianco, a prosecco on one occasion, and a more elegant, polished Schramsberg blanc de blancs on another. The neighboring Bianco establishments use radios to confirm when tables are available.
We were seated in the middle of the room, on small wooden tables in a high, industrial space with exposed brick and ventilation systems above. We began with the heirloom tomato caprese salad, with slices of juicy beefsteak-like tomatoes, fresh basil, and Bianco's signature fresh mozzarella.
Next appetizer was the antipasto, a pastiche of various edibles in bite-size form. Baked eggplant, sweet and earthy; roasted onion, mesmerizingly savory; warm juicy black olives; rich salami; delicious mushrooms. We gobbled up the plate before the pizzas arrived.
At first sight, the pizzas look fairly standard, with larger blotches of black burnt crust, bright colors, and a snippet of warm oven air. But the first smell is intoxicating, a melange of aromas that both marvel and excite the appetite. "Two minutes," said our great server Dave, who's been with Bianco for 12 years running. The pies needed a few minutes to cool from the screaming hot wood-fired oven. We sat there patiently ready to attack.
I usually judge a pizza place based on the quality of its margherita pie, especially since the last amazing one I had was at Flour + Water in San Francisco. Bianco's had a slightly puffier crust, wider and thicker layers of mozzarella infused into the fresh tomato sauce. Intermittent basil leaves completed the tri-colore palette. A long, pensive whiff of the pie and you're in bliss. One bite into the rich, creamy melted cheese and the slightly tart, garlicky tomato sauce. One crunchy bite into the perfect crust, and you're in heaven. The burnt ends lend coffee and barbeque notes while the dough possesses a hint of salt and malt. It might be the best pizza I've ever had up until this point of my life. Better than Flour + Water, at least twice as good as anything from Mozza, and loads better than anything else in LA.
The Sonny Boy was a meaty delight, with the warm gaeta olives providing a familiar taste for those who grew up with black olives on pizza. Slices of salty, oily salami fill the middle of the pie, with the same delicious sauce underneath.
On another night, we had a second Sonny Boy, which was equally as good, proving Bianco's consistency night in and night out. Both nights, late into dinner service, I saw that Chris himself was manning the oven, flinging fresh made pies into the oven. To see this commitment from a pizziaolo and restaurateur is inspiring.
Perhaps the best pizza I tasted at Pizzeria Bianco was the Rosa, recommended by the trusty Dave, with an addition of crimini mushrooms. The sauce-less pizza came with broken bits of Arizona pistachios, thinly sliced red onions, fresh rosemary, and a layer of parmigiano. The cheese was at some parts crispy and others more pliable. Olive oil doused the entire pie, with oil running down one's arm. The pizza was marvel whose varied flavors represented an ideal crossroads of tradition and innovation, a place where Chris has found his niche and specialty. You won't anything like this pie in pizza's spiritual home of Naples, but it is at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix where pizza is perfected.
After every night of service, you can find Chris taking a break at his own Bar Bianco, drinking a well deserved glass of beer. He's relaxed and content, knowing that the fruits of his labor are evident in the quality and crowds. I asked him coyly if he would ever open a place in LA, leaving the Phoenix location to his brother and partner to manage. He answered somewhat optimistically, which I understood to mean that it wasn't out of the question. But until then, he can oversee his excellent culinary empire in Phoenix, a city fortunate to have such a luminary.
623 E Adams St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Note on obtaining a table at Pizzeria Bianco:
There are no reservations unless you have a table between 6-10 people. A bar section would seat one or two-tops more quickly than the tables, but expect a hefty wait if you're dining anytime before 9PM. People line up even hours before opening time of 5PM, so trying to nab an early table could be equally difficult. Your best bet is to eat a late lunch (ideally at Pane Bianco) and put your name for a table around 9:30PM. Drink an aperitif next door at Bar Bianco, and enjoy a late dinner.