Pie vs. Pie
I'm feeling like that guy in Mystic Pizza, the cozy Julia Roberts movie from 1988. Remember him? He played "The Everyday Gourmet," a TV restaurant critic who traveled to Mystic, Connecticut, just for a bite of Mystic Pizza pie.
He was endearingly pompous when he arrived, making high theater of tasting the shop's specialty combo. He picked up a slice, and studied it, peering intently from beneath his clichéd fedora. He whipped out his notepad, and scribbled something secret. He took a tiny bite of just the tip of the slice, smacked his lips and rolled his eyes, savoring tomato sauce like fine wine. A few more drama queen nibbles, a few more notes, and he was done. He marched out, leaving the entire rest of the pie in his wake.
We all laughed when we watched him, didn't we? Because pizza is pizza. Stuff to be eaten carelessly in front of the TV. It ain't knife-and-fork stuff, to be critiqued as art from America's great chefs. There are some pizzas better than others, to be sure, but pretentious, this pie shouldn't be.
Yet now, here I am, working my way through almost a dozen pizzas, searching out the glamour. I'm nibbling, smacking my lips, rolling my eyes. Why? Because the James Beard Foundation has decided that our pizza is a national treasure. A few weeks ago, the organization nominated one of our local pizza masters, Chris Bianco, for its annual Best Chef of the Southwest competition. This is a really big deal for a chef, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar. If he wins, Bianco will join the ranks of just a handful of Arizona's world-class chefs, including Vincent Guerithault (Vincent's on Camelback), RoxSand Scocos (RoxSand), Janos Wilder (Janos of Tucson), and Robert McGrath (Roaring Fork).
It's true that Bianco's brick-oven wood-fired pizza is spectacular (oh, the crisp, chewy thin crust topped with creamy mozzarella, homemade fennel sausage, wood-roasted mushrooms and fragrant basil!). The quality is that of a fanatic: Bianco regularly travels to Italy to fine-tune his craft. He uses locally grown organic produce and herbs from his own private garden, he makes his own mozzarella, and he's constantly updating his small menu for what's fresh and seasonal. He's so hung up on keeping his pie just-from-the-oven perfect that he doesn't even allow takeout.
But, Beard, dude, it's still just pizza. So what if the no-reservations-accepted, tiny downtown Phoenix place is always a mob scene, packed with diners willing to wait upward of an hour for a piece of pie? And this isn't even the first time Bianco's been up for the honor (he was nominated in 2000 as well). Is this stuff really so incredible it belongs up there with guys like Guerithault?
In a word, yes. It'd been a while since I'd battled the crowds at Pizzeria Bianco, and it takes a refresher course on the Valley's other pizza joints to remind me just how remarkable Bianco's dishes really are. A taste tour takes me to four of the Valley's newest pizza emporiums, each promising a euphoric eating experience. What I find: one superb purveyor, La Grande Orange in central Phoenix. One first-rate pizzeria, Patsy Grimaldi's in downtown Scottsdale. One surprisingly good, speedy-quick shop in Gilbert. And one pizza place -- Nick's 24/7 -- that's just okay. None, though, that capture the mystical magic that is Bianco's.
Craig and Kris DeMarco are the proprietors behind the closest contender, La Grande Orange, a Berkeley-esque grocery/deli/pastry shop/sit-down cafe/coffee house/wine store and pizzeria. The DeMarcos also own Postino Wine Cafe next door, an absolute gem of a bistro for upscale appetizers, light dishes and eclectic wines. For La Grande, though, they've divided the shop into a culinary co-op of independent local food artisans (a pastry and cake wizard, a master bread baker, a produce expert, a fruit genius, etc., all share the space).
Chef Doug Robson is La Grande's pizza god. This is no fast food, with each small pie -- one size only -- taking up to 25 minutes to craft and bake (call ahead, and it'll be ready for eating at one of the six tiny tables). A handful of pizzas are available every day, and there's a single specialty pie presented each day of the week. The pizza even travels well, Robson boasts, recommending that for optimum reheating I splash a few drops of olive oil in a skillet and let the pie crisp over medium-low for 10 to 15 minutes (it works!).
I absolutely adore this crust. Enough that I would eat it straight, treasuring its bubbly crisp bite, its gently sour character of natural sourdough fermented overnight. These toppings put everyday pizza to shame -- organic, seasonal vegetables are brought in daily from the Valley's Victory Farms and other local growers; intensely herby moist sausage is homemade, pepperoni is premium, and herbs are so fresh they're plucked in bunches from silver tubs in the store's produce section.
I eat, and eat, and eat, with Sunday's breathtaking combination of crisp roasted corn kernels, juicy sliced tomato, aromatic basil leaves, silky goat cheese and the laciest mantle of mozzarella. I devour Wednesday's fennel, organic greens and goat cheese; Saturday's mushroom ragout and sweet onion. They taste like the sun. I make my own masterpiece: mozzarella, wet tomato, plump sausage, pepperoni baked crunchy on its edges, tangy Kalamata and green olives, and the most marvelous thing of all -- whole eggs, dropped in raw and baked to a creamy, yolky poached manner.
It hasn't taken long for the masses to discover Patsy Grimaldi's Pizzeria, open just one month in a pretty brick building across the street from Scottsdale's historic Sugar Bowl. I stop in, rumpled and weary on a Saturday night, and immediately realize I'm underdressed and underenergized for the event. Even if there are only two sizes of pizza, two bases (tomato or white), and 14 toppings, plus two salads, a calzone and two desserts, our local diners are treating this place like fine dining. The look certainly is big city, with moody lighting, glittering walls of liquor bottles, a coifed hostess and an expo kitchen featuring chefs hand-tossing dough. Pizza with the services of a sommelier? Patsy's has got it.
This is big-time pie, too, featured on the Today show, in Good Housekeeping, the New York Times and USA Today, and rated #1 Pizzeria in New York for seven years straight by Zagat (Bianco himself trained under Patsy Grimaldi). It's apparently been an East Coast institution since 1933, though the name rings no bells for me, and several of my diehard Manhattan buddies shrug when I bring it up. We're the first expansion outside of its two original shops in Brooklyn, and Hoboken, New Jersey.
The hoopla comes from the baking process, 25-ton brick ovens fired not with wood, but with coal, reaching temperatures of 1,200 degrees. There's no denying toppings are above average, the gently spicy red sauce with squished tomatoes, the pure earth-flavor mushrooms, the oven-roasted sweet red peppers, fresh garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. I try two pies -- diners create their own; there are no special combos -- and am plenty happy. One is classic: pepperoni (fine), sausage (obviously handmade) and mushrooms with mozzarella and red sauce. The other is creative: a white base with garlic, ricotta (wonderful, creamy clumps like little land mines of sweetness), ham (deli-quality, though in too fine a chop to appreciate) and Kalamata olives (sliced, thank you; the whole olives served at La Grande Orange roll off the pie).
The crust, I don't like so much. It's delightfully English muffin chewy, French bread taut and elegantly thin, but the coal-baked dough tastes like, well, coal. I discuss it with a New Jersey transplant who grew up on the stuff, though, and he loves the familiar flavor.
I surprise myself that I enjoy Extreme Pizza as much as I do. Because this is essentially a Quizno's of pie-dom, a franchise with locations across California, Colorado, Florida, and now here. It's fast -- pies run through a conveyor-style oven in about 10 minutes -- and entirely casual, with a loud television blaring while high school kids snap gum and take our orders.
Except these are really fine eats. As its promo materials say, Extreme caters to "freethinking, pizza connoisseur daredevils" -- which would bug me for its cuteness, except that it's true. Its creative specialty-combo menu is the only reason I ever could have stumbled upon such a suspicious-sounding but spectacular blend as "Peace in the Middle East." The pie comes slathered with homemade hummus in place of tomato sauce, tomatoes, olives, feta, fresh basil, pepperoncini and mozzarella (trust me, try it -- the ingredients are chopped so they blend instead of overwhelm, the hummus is the real thing, the crust is thin but buoyant, almost like pita bread).
The imaginative combos are how I find myself under the spell of Pandora's Box, with real-live fresh baby spinach, sparkling marinated artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, real salty feta, fresh garlic, fresh basil, oregano and mozzarella. And it's how I find myself stuffing on a Holy Cow, a rich recital of fontina, Swiss, Gorgonzola, mozzarella, roasted walnuts and fresh sage.
If I've been questioning a bit as to what could propel plain pizza to James Beard status, all I have to do is slide by Nick's 24/7 in north Phoenix. The gimmick here is that the place is open around the clock, every day of the week. And honestly, staying open is what this shop does best. It isn't the pie, thick, commercial-tasting fare that's fine for 2 a.m. cravings but doesn't hold up in the light of day. There's too much crust, too much sauce, too much leaden cheese, and after feasting on homemade sausage, these dot-size nubs just don't satisfy.
As the Everyday Gourmet summarized his fascination with Mystic Pizza's pies: "I must tell you this is probably the best pizza I've ever tasted, mystic indeed. Just the right blend of cheese, and tomatoes, and spices I can't quite identify."
So maybe I'll never uncover the exact magic that makes Pizzeria Bianco remarkable enough to get the James Beard Foundation to sit up and take notice. I just know, after one taste, that he's got it. Should he take home the trophy when the awards are announced in May, the rest of the world will know it, too.
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