Phoenix's Essential Sandwich Will Spellbind Your Taste Buds

Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

2: Market Sandwich from Pane Bianco

No list of essential Phoenix restaurants would be legitimate without an entry from Chris Bianco. And no restaurant in Bianco’s orbit would be what it is without a yeasty boost from Pane Bianco. Today, three decades into Bianco’s journey as a hard-way food professional, Pane Bianco is the wellspring of his magic.

Chris Bianco calls Pane Bianco his “epicenter." His brother, Marco Bianco, oversees operations. It is in Pane Bianco that heirloom grains from Arizona and Utah and elsewhere are milled to flour – the lifeblood of the tagliatelle at Tratto, the Rosa at Pizzeria Bianco, and the flour tortillas at Roland’s.

It is Pane Bianco, too, where Chris flexes his creative muscles, where he riffs and experiments.

“Pane Bianco provides an avenue for some things we bring in from our farmers and ranchers, some of the things we can have fun with and experiment on,” Chris says.

That might mean testing a new blend of flours. That might mean crisping a new pastry. (And probably has meant new pastries lately, as Le Dinersaur’s Olivia Girard has recently come under the Bianco restaurant umbrella.) That might even mean roasting a whole pig or goat, which, pulled, might fill one of Pane Bianco’s market sandwiches.

The market sandwich at Pane Bianco changes every day. When you enter the oven-side of Pane Bianco from North Central Avenue, you will see, on a board, the market sandwiches featured that week. Each day’s sandwich surrenders its identity to the whims of the seasons. One day you might get wood-roasted eggplant with Parmesan. Another you might get a beautiful Caprese with goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.

The crux of Bianco’s food philosophy is the use of pristine ingredients. The only way to get pristine ingredients is to source rigorously from the best local farms, the places where crops and animals are raised scrupulously. Elite local farms are dependent on the seasons, and Bianco is dependent on Arizona’s elite farms. His magic begins not with Pane, really, but with the sunshine and soil.

click to enlarge A cut of thick al taglio pizza from Pane Bianco - CHRIS MALLOY
A cut of thick al taglio pizza from Pane Bianco
Chris Malloy
What you get when you eat Bianco’s best food isn't pizza or a sandwich. It's place and season in edible form, spring or fall served on a plate.

Because the market sandwich changes to match the bounty of local farms, it is one of the purest incarnations of the Bianco way. The bread comes from high-end flours, shaped and baked in an oven you can see. The filling comes from nearby land. If tomatoes fill your sandwich, they are his (if canned) or local (if fresh). By the time your teeth touch crust, the bread measures its life in mere hours.

The market sandwich's bread has a nice crisp exterior, a ton of structure, and softness within. It doesn’t give to that softness without some fight. This is bread with huge personality.

We all know that Bianco with flour and water is like da Vinci with paint and canvas. What impresses more than the bread and ingredients is how well they are married.

Sandwich architecture is a deceivingly complex subject, but the design of a market sandwich at Pane is generally flawless. For example, a heap of arugula slicked with balsamic vinegar would seem to be too much  for a sandwich with goat cheese and tomatoes. But the creamy smear of goat cheese is tangy and vibrant, and the misshapen tomatoes unleash primal flavors from skins as gnarled, blistered, and blackened as fire-roasted peppers.

The sum exceeds its parts by a factor of 10. This is the aim of food Italian-spirited at its core: to take beautiful ingredients, to use minimal technique to unlock huge flavor, and to let that flavor shine.

Bianco does this again and again.

Pane Bianco is a Phoenix quintessential.

Pane Bianco. 4404 North Central Avenue, Suite A; 602-234-2100.
Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Sunday.

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2: Market Sandwich from Pane Bianco