Eating at Pane Bianco, superstar chef Chris Bianco's sister restaurant to Pizzeria Bianco, is a lot like the scene in L.A. Confidential where Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) shows Bud White (Russell Crowe) to her real bedroom and not the grand boudoir where her main business is done: It's more intimate, there's no rush, and you get the same high-quality lovin' with considerably less wait time.
And now the little Central Phoenix lunch spot from the James Beard Award-winner behind Pizzeria Bianco is open most nights for dinner.
Although there are plans to take over Lux Coffee Bar (Pane Bianco's adjacent storefront) this summer to allow for indoor seating, alcoholic beverages, and a retail bakery and cheese shop, the scene's the same for now: the smell of fresh-baked bread leading into a simple space done up in earthy, Old World tones, blackboards announcing the day's menu, a few Italian grocery and take-out items at the ready, and a wood-fired stove behind a small ordering counter. For those not getting their grub to go, large picnic tables of reclaimed wood wait outside, along with the sounds of the light rail, Central Avenue traffic, and whatever topics the scene's urban hipster crowd deems worthy of discussing between bites of Pane Bianco's focaccia sandwiches or sips of Lux's handcrafted espressos.
4404 North Central Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Roasted vegetables: $5
Sandwiches, salads: $8
All this non-change on the heels of one big one: Italian chef Claudio Urciuoli, formally of Prado, is packing it in to work with Chris Bianco. Though the move may seem monumental in the eyes of some, Pane Bianco still serves a tight but tasty menu featuring top-notch local ingredients and fresh, local fare. One word of caution: It ain't cheap.
"I get the concept," a potential customer said after surveying the dinner blackboard and just before walking out. "I just don't want to pay that much for it."
Can't say I blame him. Twelve bucks for three meatballs, one of the four dinner items I tried at Pane Bianco, seemed steep, even if the crazy-good homemade tomato sauce is something I could eat by the bowlful (it's available on the restaurant's retail shelves and I nearly purchased a giant can of it). The meatballs were delicious — juicy, flavor-packed orbs that lazily fell apart when I dug my fork into them — but given the fact that the dinnerware is made from recycled paper and there's no table service, maybe stuffing one of them with a $5 bill wouldn't be such a bad idea.
The crespelle (Italian crepes) filled with spinach, ricotta cheese, and smothered in that tantalizing signature tomato sauce were light and delicious but, again, 12 bucks for two? C'mon, Chris, I just paid two bucks for bottled water — from Italy. Make with an extra crespelle or two so I don't feel like such a putz.
A better bargain for a light evening meal is the plate of roasted seasonal veggies. With a savory selection of vegetables changing nightly, it's a recycled-paper plateful of roasted goodness for five bucks. Mine featured lightly salted broccoli, asparagus, sweet potatoes, garlic, and artichoke pieces packing a flavor-filled punch with each bite.
The black beluga lentils, polenta, and sausage plate was the lone letdown of my nighttime nosh-fest at Pane Bianco. No surprise that the sausage, straight from the encased-meat pros at Schreiner's Fine Sausage, didn't disappoint. What did was the dry and tasteless polenta cake floating atop soupy spoonfuls of beluga lentils, which were spruced up with a few pieces of basil. Overall, it was impossible to try everything in one bite, making for a $10 dish of disjointed-ness with no real star power.
My good fortune? The focaccia. Served alongside Pane Bianco's dinner food, this fresh-baked flatbread boasts ingredients that change daily. Mine was packed with juicy grape tomatoes, olives, and basil. Give this gal a slice or two with Bianco's signature tomato sauce for dippin' and I'm in home-baked heaven.
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If you've got the extra cash to spare, there's homemade rice pudding or a featured sorbet for dessert. If not, you'll get a free sweet treat in the form of a wrapped piece of chocolate.
While the new dinner menu may offer additional flavor at Pane Bianco, the true heroes (and best bets for the money) continue to be the sandwiches. If you haven't had the mozzarella sandwich yet, get one — it's a true Valley must. Packed with thick slices of housemade mozzarella drizzled with olive oil, ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, and (if you ask for it or, as in my case, the friendly counter gal offered to add) flavorful argula packed between slices of warm, crispy focaccia sprinkled with salt, this generously sized sandwich is simple satisfaction for eight bucks.
For meat and cheese lovers, the soppressata focaccia sandwich, featuring cured salami, wood-roasted onions, and aged provolone that refuses to stop tasting so damn good, is a real pleaser. And if you enjoy flaky tuna on the slightly sweet side, it's tastier in the salad (as opposed to its sandwich cousin) alongside red onions, Gaeta olives, and greens with a light lemon dressing.
Has the flavor profile at Pane Bianco been raised with the addition of a dinner menu and chef Claudio Urciuoli? Only time will tell. One thing's for sure: The simple, flavor-of-the-day food, made with fresh, local ingredients, continues to work as well for Pane Bianco as it does for its big sister, Pizzeria Bianco. And though the prices at Pane may be its biggest drawback, at least you don't have to wait three hours to eat.