Chris Bianco Pizzeria Bianco, Bar Bianco 623 E. Adams Street, Phoenix, 602-258-8300; 609 E. Adams St., 602-528-3699 Pizzeria Bianco/ Trattoria Bianco 4743 N. 20th Street (Town & Country), Phoenix, 602-368-3273 Pane Bianco 4404 N.Central Avenue, Phoenix, 602-234-2100, pizzeriabianco.com
See also: -- Chris Bianco To Open Pizzeria Bianco in Tucson This Fall -- Chris Bianco Opens Full-Blown Pizzeria Bianco at Town & Country; Italian Restaurant Moves to Back Dining Room and Morphs to Trattoria Bianco
This is part one of my interview with Chris Bianco, chef-owner of Pizzeria Bianco, Bar Bianco, Pane Bianco and Trattoria Bianco. Come back Tuesday when Bianco dishes about Giovanni Scorzo (Andreoli Italian Grocer), his upcoming pizza cookbook, and what he loves about Italian cooking in Italy.
Is Chris Bianco a little crazy? You have to wonder, given the stand-on-end hair, the manic monologues -- delivered at such a rapid-fire pace it's hard to keep up -- and the overall sense of dishevelment and distraction. His friends would probably say, "Yes, in a good way," and they're surely right. Lots of creatives are a little touched (Salvador Dali comes to mind), dwelling in an interior space that bears little connection to what the rest of us plodding earthbound types call "the real world."
I remember part of a conversation Bianco and I had many years ago, he on one side of his work station by the pizza oven, me on the other. He said something deep and insightful about life (and because my own mind has been gone for many years now, I can't recall what) and when I let out a little "wow!" (or words to that effect), he simply said, "I have a lot of time to think while I stand here making pizzas." So he's this person, too, a meditative soul whose husky voice and faint Bronx accent make him sound like a thug until you actually listen to the content, often peppered with words like "gratitude" and "blessings."
What most people don't see behind the fast-talking, bantering persona (a master of analogy, the man is also seriously funny) are Bianco's sensitivity to criticism and his profound insecurity. The nasty comments made on social media forums about long lines and waiting at Pizzeria Bianco? They cut like a knife. And I nearly fell off my chair when Bianco recently reminded me of a review I wrote over 25 years ago in which I described the amount of basil he put on the pizza as "microscopic." He repeated it to me as if it were yesterday.
Which is crazy, indeed, considering he's been showered with awards, praise and adulation ever since: an unheard of 29 out of 30 points in the Zagat Survey (2000); a James Beard Award, Best Chef Southwest (2003); Ed Levine of the NY Times called his pizza "best in the country" (2004); and Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue Magazine called his pizza "best in the world" (a sentiment echoed by Ruth Reichl), the same year. And now he opens UK pizza restaurants with mega-star Jamie Oliver.
Pretty good for a guy who dropped out of high school and moved to Phoenix in 1985, when he made fresh mozzarella out of his apartment and sold it to restaurants such as La Bruschetta (Giovanni Scorzo's first restaurant) and Franco's (which is where he met Pavle Milic, a 13-year-old bus boy there at the time). A few years down the road, Bianco met Guy Coscas, the French-born businessman who co-owned Uptown Plaza at the time, which contained an ooh-la-la Country French-designed gourmet grocery called Euro-Market. Coscas found a little corner of the store for Bianco, who put in a wood-burning oven and started cranking out pizzas, quickly developing a cult-like following.
When Euro-Market started going downhill (longtime locals will recall a famous divorce settlement that left one Uptown Plaza co-owner nearly broke), Bianco left, following Giovanni Scorzo to Santa Fe to work as his sous chef at Babbo Ganzo. Feeling burned out but eager to learn more about real Italian food and -- pizza in particular -- Bianco left for Italy in 1992, returning to Phoenix in '93 to meet Chrysa Robertson (Kaufman at the time), who had just opened Rancho Pinot at Town & Country. Bianco made pizzas at the restaurant, and when Robertson and her then-husband Tom moved to bigger digs in Scottsdale in 1994, Bianco took over their lease, opening the first Pizzeria Bianco there. Two years later, he moved the restaurant to a tiny, historic brick building (the former Baird Machine Shop) in Heritage Square, opening Pane Bianco in 2002. When Bianco's asthma forced him to stop spending so much time with flour, he stepped away from his nightly pizza post in 2010 but quickly got busy again, teaming up with celebrity chef and like-minded locavore Jamie Oliver to open three British pizza restaurants called Union Jacks. Now Bianco plans to open a new Pizzeria Bianco in Tucson this fall. Crazy? Uh-uh, more like crazy-busy.
Five words to describe you: Lucky, blessed, insecure, loyal, grateful.
Four words to describe Pizzeria Bianco: Sincere, imperfect, transparent, timeless.
Four words to describe Italian Restaurant (now Trattoria Bianco): Evolving, journey, village, family.
Favorite food smell: Toast.
Favorite cookbook: I have many, many favorite cookbooks. One of them is Seven Fires by Francis Mallmann, an inspiring look at traditional foods of Argentina with a beautiful, clear perspective. Primal wood-fired cookery at its finest.
Ingredient you love to cook with: The one I leave out, finding the tipping point when enough is just right, letting restraint and the already natural perfection of the gifts given speak for themselves.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil. They should just stop making it.
Most underrated ingredient: Fresh bay leaves.
Trend you like: Smaller menus.
One of your favorite places to dine in Phoenix: One of my favorites is FnB. I've been fortunate to know Charleen and Pavle for a long time, and it's the combination of journey, pedigree, and character that makes them truly special. Their success is well-deserved and their commitment to farmers and food and wine artisans is to be celebrated and supported. Good people.
Local chef you admire: There are many chefs in the Valley I admire and respect but Mark Tarbell has always been special. We both opened restaurants in '94. I not only admire him as a chef but also his ability to run the front of the house, his wine knowledge, and how he articulates it. Through many tough times in my career, he's been very supportive, always one of the first to call to see if there is anything he can do. So I guess I admire him as a chef, restaurateur, family man, and friend.
What about working for Chrysa?: We connected right away. I loved her menu. It was fucking great. She was fresh from Campanile and Hiro. She had a great sensitivity to food and a great understanding of seasonality. We worked well together. That was a great experience, and it was a lot of fun for me. What's it been like working with Jamie Oliver?: Working with Jamie? Hmm, I'll tell you a secret, it really isn't work at all. His kindness, work ethic, and generous spirit make him easy to be around. He has given me and my wife Mia a beautiful extended London family. The whole experience is a constant source of inspiration that I carry with me and hope to share daily.
In what ways are you two alike and in what ways are you different?: Ways we are alike -- loyal, obsessive, hard workers, perfectionists, and idealists. Not alike -- he's definitely smarter, a better communicator, and much more adventurous.
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What makes an awesome pizza awesome?: For me, what makes awesome pizza awesome is the same thing that makes anything that's awesome awesome. Quality people, quality ingredients, and great execution.
What goes into the pizza-making process that the average customer doesn't think about?: That it does "take a village." No one man makes a pizza.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Jacques Qualin of J&G Steakhouse Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Matt Pool of Matt's Big Breakfast Jared Porter of The Parlor Charleen Badman of FnB Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles Chris Bianco, Pizzeria Bianco, Bar Bianco, Pane Bianco and Trattoria Bianco