In 1996, when Pizzeria Bianco reopened at Heritage Square, the lines were long — and the sun, hanging high in the Phoenix sky, was, needless to say, very hot.
So the humane choice was to open Bar Bianco next door, where patrons could down however many beers and glasses of wine could be nursed across the infamous Disneyland-level wait times. By 1997, a bar was born.
While Phoenix transformed around them, much at Bianco and the Bar stayed the same. But toward the end of 2016, Bar Bianco began posting photos from a newly-minted Instagram account (@BarBiancoPhx), and Chris Bianco (@PizzeriaBianco) began directing traffic toward it.
These smoke signals were spelling out a new era for the old bar: It would begin serving cocktails, feature updated bar snacks, and happy hour specials, and operate until 2 a.m. every Thursday through Saturday, and until 12 a.m. on Sundays.
In a reversal of roles, it’s now possible you might want to kill time with a couple pies at the pizzeria before a night out of cocktails at Bar Bianco.
“It’s been our old friend for 20 years now,” Bianco said on a routine stop through the bar’s dining room. “So to give it some new life is very exciting.”
The team behind the transition is composed of 13-year Bianco employee Erin Vargo and her husband, Justin, who left his previous post at Shady’s, where he’d been a bartender and manager for close to a decade, to develop Bar Bianco’s new cocktail program.
“The time was right for a new challenge,” Erin says. “Here’s that new challenge.”
Keeping in step with the Bianco ethos for food-sourcing, and in a similar vein to what Blaise Faber has done with the cocktails at Bianco’s newest restaurant, Tratto, Erin and Justin are serving cocktails that, in a handful of cases, aim to incorporate local purveyors and flavors.
Such is the case with the Andie Walsh, which is brightened up to a pristinely pink hue thanks to a house-made hibiscus syrup mixed in with Ransom-brand grappa, dry curaçao, and lemon juice — a refreshing drink for a sunny winter day in Phoenix.
Until the weather warms back up, perhaps soon, the bar will be serving not only a Vahlrona-backed, cinnamon-studded Mexican hot chocolate, spiced and spiked with Ancho Reyes-brand chile liqueur (if you dare) but a hot mulled cider, the product of apples grown in Wilcox wine country down at the southeast end of the state. Like with the hot chocolate, you’re able to choose your spirit. For the cider, the couple recommends the Cruzan Black Strap rum, and local spirits like Tucson’s mesquite-smoked Whiskey Del Bac or Tempe’s Apple Pie Liqueur.
Though they are gone now, the bar has served a cocktail using a syrup made from local persimmons, and also braved their own take on the divisive Blood and Sand cocktail, swapping out Scotch for Whiskey Del Bac and Creme Yvette (a violet petal and berry-flavored liqueur) for Cherry Heering.
Another highlight from their current seasonal offerings is the forest-fresh Winter Manhattan, which features Sazarac-brand rye whiskey, walnut liqueur, vermouth, and Peychaud’s bitters.
Between the patio and the other rooms inside of Bar Bianco, the space has plenty of seating — in the dozens, unlike at the bar, which tops out at five seats.
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"Normally, we have six seats," Justin says about the bar area. "But the cider station takes up the sixth seat ... Once it goes back to warmer weather, we'll have it back."
Bar Bianco's happy hour doesn't include cocktail deals, but from 4 until 7 p.m. discounts are applied to wine, beer, and bar snacks.