A Master and a Rising Star: Why the Valley's Pizza Scene Is Peaking Now

Jackie Mercandetti
Myke Olsen shapes pizza dough at his pop-up restaurant in Mesa.
At the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, when agriculture began, early farmers raised high-protein wheat, like emmer and einkorn. Agriculture enabled the development of the town; food could finally be predictably eaten in one place, allowing people to settle in clusters to harvest and provide complementary services to one another. Bread was one of the first baked goods, made from the earliest domesticated wheat. It was cooked in hot ashes or by fire.

Pizza is a bread cooked by fire. It is a flatbread, one close to focaccia. The Italian and later English word “focaccia” derives from the Latin word “focus,” meaning “hearth,” reference to the ancient place of its cooking.

But pizza as we know it today — thin dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese — didn’t evolve until at least the 1500s, when the tomato crossed to Italy from the New World. Long before, people were adding toppings to flatbreads on the Italian peninsula. It is hard to say when these flatbreads crossed into “pizza,” but everybody agrees that it happened in Naples.

Southern Italy, from the lowest reaches of the Tiber Valley to Sicily, has long been an Elysium of grain. Campania, the southern region home to Naples, is the birthplace of mozzarella. On top of this, Italy’s renowned San Marzano tomatoes come from a few miles outside of Naples, on the east side of Mount Vesuvius. Naples, cradle of pizza, had all of its elements.

In Naples and Italy, pizza is largely eaten as a street food.

You might think that attitudes would be lax toward food scarfed while quickly traversing city byways, but not in this shiv-shaped country. The Italian organization that certifies pizza as Neapolitan, Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, has draconian commandments that pizza-makers must submit to if they want the group’s hallowed designation.

Pizza must be round. It must be cooked in 60 to 90 seconds. It must be .04 centimeters thick at the center (variance of 10 percent allowed). It must contain only sea salt. It must be shaped from 00 or 0 flour, twice-risen to certain parameters, garnished with Campanian toppings, and feature a 1-to-2 centimeter “cornicione,” an outer ring of swollen crust.

The pizza that first made its way from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the east coast of America wasn’t consonant with even a looser idea of Neapolitan. What immigrants cooked in their home ovens and bakeries was more freeform. Neapolitan pizza arrived in the States more recently, trailing other pizza styles that had been firmly established for decades.

The popularity of pizza in the U.S. came in three waves. First, in the decades following the Risorgimento, the Italian wars for unification (ending in 1870), more than 5 million Italians emigrated to America, many from the Italian south. Second, following World War II and allied liberation of Italy, millions of American soldiers went home with a taste for pizza.

Third, at the end of the 20th century, the American craft pizza movement, largely with Neapolitan roots, started to bloom. In just a few cities across the country, Phoenix being one, there was an advent of a next-level pizzaiolo or two, pizza-makers who had the vision and freedom to respectfully and intelligently depart from Italian rules and put new elements under a microscope, changing pizza.

Pizza has evolved. It has evolved away from its Neapolitan roots in Italy. Today, in Rome, you see slices with egg and onion, with cacio e pepe sauce. In Naples, you see white pies with walnut cream and bulb-like zucchini flowers, red pies with crust elongated to look like spoked wheels. In the U.S., there are a legion of sub-types, including Detroit-style, the New York slice, the Americanized Sicilian square, and the tomato pie (bread dough, no cheese).

In Arizona, there is no signature pizza style. But there are signature pizza makers, both young and seasoned. They live by their own free rules — the rules of flavor. Two of the most notable pizzaioli in Phoenix who have forged their own styles are Chris Bianco, old master and local treasure, and Myke Olsen, a promising newcomer.

Both are helping elevate Phoenix pizza to new heights; both show why pizza in the Valley is, right now, at its peak.

click to enlarge Olsen's potato and bacon pizza is one of Phoenix's best. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Olsen's potato and bacon pizza is one of Phoenix's best.
Jackie Mercandetti
On a July evening so hot the birds won’t fly, the light rail trundles down Main Street in Mesa, a sun-pummeled road in the east Valley. The sun is lowering. Rich early evening light is reflected on the gloss of the train’s slick body. Coming closer, bleating nasally, whirring and shaking, the train passes Mezona Market in a rush. Nothing else moves in the desert heat. Nothing but the team of pizza makers outside Mezona, working a pair of 800-degree ovens on the sidewalk.

Myke Olsen, now 36, is the leader. He stands over a marble surface on a portable table. The object of his intent focus — peering through eyeglasses, a teddy bear of a man with flowing orange hair and beard — is balls of dough.

Dough that has been fermenting for 48 hours. Dough that has been shaped from the flour of wheat raised in the American West. Living dough that is racing through fermentation in the 105-degree heat. Dough that he massages with his hands, now, into a flat circle.

This dough is one of 20 to 60 portions that Olsen will stretch, top, and bake into pizza tonight at his pop-up, Myke’s Pizza. Olsen runs the pop-up two or three days a week. His pies are poetry.

Arguably, Olsen is the only pizzaiolo in town close to Chris Bianco, one of the world’s great talents. Despite crafting pizza in the open air, extreme desert heat, and within a few feet of sloshing car traffic, Olsen is one of the most promising new pillars of the metro Phoenix pizza scene.

Like Bianco, Olsen operates with a maniacally detailed approach and unconventional style. Olsen, though, has yet to fully press his stamp on the scene. Pizza is at its apex here now, right now, thanks to the evolving efforts of these two pizza-makers, and many others.

Olsen’s cult following is a small miracle. He doesn’t own an actual pizzeria. His ovens aren’t from Italy. Just three years ago, he was an accountant.

Orange hair loose in a bandanna, sun catching his eyeglasses as he shifts, Olsen gently shapes another dough ball into a disc. He issues low-key guidance to two helpers. Manoly Kladovasilakis, husky and black-bearded, peers into one of two tiny portable gas ovens, studies its vertically pluming tide of flame. Pierce Vargas, a wiry kid not 22, readies toppings like purple potato slices and garlic cream.

The clock slips to 5 p.m. The pizza pop-up opens.

Immediamente, customers start to trickle to Olsen’s provisional pizza rig. He knows most by name, and the names of their kids. Regulars and newcomers arrive in ones and twos, ducking into Mezona Market, where Olsen’s menu is written on painters’ paper, and where the bulk of the evening’s dough rests in proofing bins (keeping stable in the air conditioning). Mezona’s checkout counter doubles as Myke’s; a tablet beams what you want to a screen before Olsen on the sidewalk. After ordering, customers return to the wide street, chat with Olsen.

“It’s been a while, dude.”

“How’s your summer been?”

“You been doing some smoking?”

“Oh, my God, it’s hot!”

Often, during pop-up downtime, Olsen likes to study pizza literature on the street. In July he was delving into Pizza Camp, the pizza manifesto by Joe Beddia (Pizzeria Beddia, Philadelphia), as well as esteemed non-pizza cookbooks by the likes of Alice Waters and Kenji López-Alt. Olsen, who also works as a baker at Proof Bakery, is so deeply thirsty for knowledge of craft that he lards wisdom in his free minutes.

click to enlarge Pizza crisps in the brick oven at Pizzeria Bianco at Heritage Square. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Pizza crisps in the brick oven at Pizzeria Bianco at Heritage Square.
Jackie Mercandetti

Chris Bianco earned his wisdom decades ago. Though he is like da Vinci with paint, Hemingway with words, Hendrix with guitar, Bianco hasn’t stopped getting better. Year after year, since starting in 1988, the man has blazed lasting creations, at first captivating locals, and then sealing his national reputation as the awards, accolades, and talk show appearances started pouring in beginning in the 2000s.

The pizzas last not forever on the plate, but in your memory.

A lot of ink has been spilled on these pizzas. A lot of tales have been told about how Bianco started blazing pies in the back of a grocery store, about how he learned to make mozzarella while growing up working at restaurants in the Bronx, about how for his health he had to step away from his ovens, his lungs having battled for decades with wood smoke and flour dust.

These stories, though, are best told by the pizza.

click to enlarge Chris Bianco, pizza maestro. - PHOENIX NEW TIMES
Chris Bianco, pizza maestro.
Phoenix New Times

At the Pizzeria Bianco in Heritage Square, a squat, brick structure once an industrial shop, the front is plated with windows that mirror a lemon tree and the giant desert sky. People knife into oven-roasted antipasto. Sip local lager. Swirl Arizona wine. Drag on oil-thick espresso pulled from ROC2 beans. Under transportive, lofty brick walls, the aroma of oak and pecan smoke, and a cloak of mystery and expectation, the wide universe soon narrows to pizza.

Bianco does six downtown: three red, three white.

A white pie called Rosa is his best and most famous. It is made with local pistachios, red onions slivered so thin they are translucent, rosemary from the garden, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Where most pizzas funnel your focus to sauce and cheese, a Bianco pizza, this one more so than any of his others, wrenches your inner eye to the crust, to the baked dough.

This pulls his pizza in an ancient direction. There is something of the timeless flatbreads that predate pizza brimming wildly just below the surface. If you have ever been to Italy, this might drop you into a small-town cafe or farmhouse, though the pizza isn’t Italian. It’s Arizonan. And being Arizonan, it reflects the land like the windows out front: rugged and elemental, unusual, with tiny beautiful flourishes that can be entrancing.

Toppings don’t star. They merely accent. They draw out the character of the baked dough. Because Bianco has obsessively approached flour and crust for so long, its fragrance and the chewy, loud, infinitesimal architecture of the crust are superlative. They almost make you cry.

These days, more than 30 years after Chris Bianco started, his two Phoenix pizzerias run like clockwork. Bianco himself is no longer shaping mozzarella every morning, no longer laying the basil, shaving the Parmesan, pealing the pies out from his massive wood-fired ovens. He has a loyal team that carries out his vision (including Homero Martinez, Jose Louis, Joey Sito, Noel Becker, and his brother Marco, who oversees milling).

Thanks to a steady team and his careful refinements, Bianco believes his pizza is in its prime right now. “I know my pizza is better than it was 30 years ago, than 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s because of the ingredients.”

Despite the flour philosophy, the mozzarella skills, the wood-fired ovens, and all the elements of his craft, Bianco sees what he does as just the final link of a long chain that begins with the sun and soil, with his producers. What he does, he believes, is all he can to not ruin what he is given: wheat, milk, tomatoes, and the rest.

“Technique is only so much,” Bianco says. “It’s a mechanical aspect. The things that take it to the highest level, you’re going to work with what the farmers are doing in the field, and how does the miller not fuck that up, and how does the pizza-maker not fuck that up.”

At the end of the chain, he is using his great technique to simply not interfere. He is, in his generous eyes, merely reshaping what other have created. “I never made a thing in my life,” he says.

click to enlarge Pomo, strictly true to Neapolitan-style, is one of the top pizzerias in the Valley. - CHRIS MALLOY
Pomo, strictly true to Neapolitan-style, is one of the top pizzerias in the Valley.
Chris Malloy

These days, Bianco isn’t the only adept pizzaiolo in town, though he is the best, has the most developed style, and drills deepest into the divine details. Bianco planted the seeds of a pizza tree when he started here in 1988. It’s not so much that he’s had a direct hand in the rise of many other specific pizzaioli. He has more so set the tone.

A robust network of pizzerias sprawls across the Valley. At the best places, Neapolitan tends to be pope, doge, king. This mirrors the apotheosis of Neapolitan west of the Atlantic Ocean this century. This propensity is perpetuated by the quality product that so many Neapolitan-leaning pizzaioli are putting out, many having come from Italy: Stefano Fabbri (Pomo), Fabio Ceschetti (Fabio on Fire), the partners behind Bottega Pizzeria Ristorante, the Gagliano family (Forno 301), and Guido Saccone (Cibo).

These pizzaioli follow the Neapolitan example to varying degrees (some veering into the derivative, more freeform “neo-Neapolitan”), nobody closer than Fabbri. Pomo is certified by no less an entity than the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the Ur-body in Napoli. At Pomo, heat ripples across pies shaped from 00 flour to all the strictures, yielding “properly”-sized discs in just 90 seconds. Spongy crust is tall and soft on the circumference, and the center is thin, gooey, and damp with heat-leaked tomato juice.

In recent years, the national pizza tableau has started to fracture. Neapolitan has started to give way to a legion of freer styles: Detroit, grandma, Roman, Chicago (at least, in Phoenix), and hybrid styles that see principled, intensive makers, like Bianco and Olsen, select from an infinite arsenal of pizza-making tactics.

Though the atomization has come late and slowly to Phoenix, things may be changing as the long Neapolitan sunburst fades to a steady afterglow. Together with a slight early movement away from Neapolitan, the erudite minimalism of Bianco — his “crap in, crap out” theorem, holding that your food can only be as good as its ingredients — has taken greater hold.

click to enlarge Olsen reaches for fresh dough. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Olsen reaches for fresh dough.
Jackie Mercandetti

Both national inertia and Bianco’s spartan minimalism are leading to new pizza styles fomenting here in Phoenix. Even Fabbri, a purist, has detoured from Neapolitan.

Last year, Fabbri started baking “Rimini-style” pizza, thin from lip to lip of its cracker-like crust. Rimini-style isn’t a canonical pizza style; Fabbri, rather, pulled from memories of pizza in his native northern Italy to create the style. Interestingly, Phoenix’s Italian pizza-makers (taking the definition of “Italian” that Italians do: “born in Italy”) seem to stick to Neapolitan or neo-Neapolitan even if they are from lands far from Naples. The innovators tend to be former New Yorkers (like Bianco) and locals (like Olsen).

And so you see Justin Piazza of La Piazza Al Forno moving from AVPN-certified Neapolitan pies to Roman-style pizza, scissor-slicing slabs of airy dough paved with toppings inspired by, for one, central Italian pastas. And so you see Adrian Langu of Crisp Premium Pizza cranking out grandma-style white pies with 00 flour and nobody to help him. And so you see Matt and Lindsay Pilato of LAMP Pizzeria serving a superb Neapolitan-inspired pie topped with Sicilian sausage, gorgonzola, and onion marmalade. Even Bianco offers slices al taglio.

The example of Bianco, the spirit of innovation, and a maniacal drive for honing craft have propelled Phoenix pizza to its best state.

Skillful Phoenix pizza makers tend to agree.

“The reason pizza is going up in Phoenix is because people like me don’t watch the Super Bowl or the sky,” Fabbri says. “We’re always trying to do something better. … We’re always getting better because of the request, the demand, for authentic pizza.”

“I think there’s a high and low,” Piazza says, of the citywide scene. “The top ones are mostly wood-fired places and independent places. I think there’s not much in the middle. There’s bad, and then there’s good.”

“I think the state of Phoenix pizza is pretty great,” says Matt Pilato. “What’s going on here is pretty special, I believe.”

“I think that there are so many good, excellent places,” echoes Lindsay Pilato. “Chris Bianco to us is the pinnacle, but there’s so many other great guys.”

“When I go out for pizza, I go to my go-to, which is Bianco,” Olsen says. “I was always impressed with what I could find, with places like LAMP and La Piazza PHX … It’s an exiting time for the quality of pizza.”

And Bianco? Does he think Phoenix pizza is better now than ever before?

He replies: “Every day.”

click to enlarge Olsen's salami pizza is simple and beautifully made. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Olsen's salami pizza is simple and beautifully made.
Jackie Mercandetti
On the wide street in Mesa, sidewalk cracks like grill grates, Myke Olsen does all he can to get better, often pulling from the Chris Bianco school of thinking. “We use really high-quality stuff,” Olsen says. “I try to find local stuff when I can get it. You know, from the farmers market or friends growing it or whatever. As far as the quality goes, I think we have some room to grow in that area.”

Unlike Bianco, Olsen doesn’t mill his own flour. He doesn’t have the facilities to pull out all the technical stops he flirts with in his imagination. Instead, Olsen uses a wheat ground to 00 fineness by Central Milling in Logan, Utah, a provider Bianco has also used. “It’s easy to work with and tastes great,” Olsen notes. (Olsen cuts this flour with some of Central Milling’s Type 85 Flour, a hard red wheat flour.)

Working with dough outside in the desert summer isn’t easy. Olsen has to ferry his out from the A/C in batches of 12 or so. He works against the day, moving briskly to peal pies into the 800-degree oven before the sun can enervate them. He works with a loving speed, palming discs to an impressive thinness. “I’ll mix the dough for four minutes, and then I’ll usually give it a few folds after,” he says. “That’ll help develop the strength.”

Olsen recalls loving baking as a kid. About six years ago, his interest in dough and the airy marvels it can yield started to crowd out life’s non-risen callings. “I wanted to start a bakery, but pizza is a close cousin of baking,” Olsen says.

He started baking pizza for family, then friends. Soon, he was co-captaining pizza pop-ups with the former owner of Proof Bakery, Jared Allen. He says Allen taught him a lot about pizza. That was in Mesa. Olsen remains dedicated to making pizza in Mesa, a city that lacks an A+ pizza option.

But not on nights he is crisping pies on the sidewalk. Out they come from the depths of the fire-pluming gas ovens on the lazy main artery of town, an arresting panoply pealed one pie at a time.

They are pies with rosemary, bacon, garlic cream, and three colors of coined potatoes under a flurry of shaved cheese. They are margherita pies with scarlet knots of tomato, torn sails of basil, and blooms of melted mozzarella. They are splotchy bogs of white pie, simmering melted cheese pored like cork and topped with garlic slivers.

They are pies with heat-curled salami, with char-ringed pepperoni, with anchovies fanned widely and all pointing to the center. They are pies with drifts of melted mozzarella in pooled lakes of red sauce that seem to roll for microscopic miles. Crust bubbles puff up, sail full, and sag to workaday dimensions, cooling, as Olsen wrists his slicer through pies, raised hideous beautiful blisters spewing char, smells shunting your memory to halcyon places.

The hour is early, but customers keep coming. So do the pizzas.

click to enlarge At good pizzerias, like Chris Bianco's (pictured), dough is more of an endpoint than an origin. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
At good pizzerias, like Chris Bianco's (pictured), dough is more of an endpoint than an origin.
Jackie Mercandetti

Nobody in the Phoenix pizza world is as obsessed with flour
as Chris Bianco. Most pizza makers purchase flour. Some even import special 00 flour from Italy, the kind so fine it almost feels like fluid. Italian flour isn’t good enough for Bianco. He prefers to mill his own.

“One of the main things on grain for us is that the grain themselves are stable,” he explains. “As soon as we mill it, we’re activating. Just like dry oregano. Bump it through your fingers, and it’s heady and aromatic. The timer is on. You’ve pulled the string on the grenade for the flavor bomb.”

In the Bianco vector of pizza philosophy, grain is like coffee. A cup of coffee is best when the beans are ground right before you brew. The moment beans are ground, their oils are freshest. As it is with coffee beans and a hot cup, so it goes with grain and pizza.

However, freshness is just one dimension of flour. When pizza makers mill their own flour, like Bianco’s team does at his central kitchen in Pane Bianco, they gain a level of control over the resulting product. This control unlocks a matrix of benefits.

A host of factors shape flour character and final dough. Do you mill spring wheat (high protein) or winter wheat (a little lower)? Do you use soft wheat or hard wheat? How fine should you grind the grains? Which producer should you source them from? Should you blend grain varietals? At what temperature should you mill? And using stone or another material?

Bianco hasn’t been milling his own flour since he started. But he has been playing chess for so long that he has the flour game all but figured out.

What flour blend he creates for pizza varies with the seasons, with the farm offerings, and with the years. Over time, he has winnowed his methods to a tight range. “We use a very-high-protein hard spring wheat mostly out of Central Milling, and also Cairnspring Mills in Skagit Valley, Washington,” Bianco says.

“If you want to make 100 percent traditional Neapolitan pizza, then you have to get what you have to get,” Chris Bianco says, meaning 00 flour from Italy. “Not against anyone who wants to bring things over, but that’s not exciting to me.”

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His approach to flour runs counter to that of Naples, birthplace of pizza. Bianco shoots for a blend of West Coast flours that will result in a protein content of 13.5 to 13.8 percent. The 00 flour used in Naples has 10 percent or less. The result is that Neapolitan pizza has something of a springy, sponge-like softness, with a thin crackly armor enveloping the bottom and the outer lip of the crust. Bianco’s pizza is different. It has a chewy but shattering structure all the way through, not just on a leaf-thin surface. Biting into his outer crust is like rending your molars through the intricate architecture of a tiny cathedral.

“If you want to make 100 percent traditional Neapolitan pizza, then you have to get what you have to get,” Bianco says, meaning 00 flour from Italy. “Not against anyone who wants to bring things over, but that’s not exciting to me.”

Often, Bianco softens his crust with White Sonora Wheat. Grown since the Spanish brought it to these parts of the world in the 17th century, White Sonora Wheat is the artisan grain most tied to the Valley of the Sun today. That is because in recent years it has been revitalized by brave, forward-looking farmers like Steve Sossaman of Queen Creek. Bianco has friendships with Sossaman and other grain innovators — not just in Phoenix but across the American West, from arid landscapes punctuated with Saguaro candelabras up to The Bread Lab at Washington State University.

He cultivates relationships because he’s a social guy, sure, but also for quality grain and intel on specific grain crops. Bianco is never more than a phone call away if his wheat doesn’t grind, hydrate, or fire as planned. He uses intricate grain wisdom and elite varietals to calibrate the flavor and texture of his dough to his Platonic specifications. Like fennel or oranges, flour is best fresh, so Phoenix’s OG pizza maestro mills and blends it himself.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that flour is just one pizza ingredient. Bianco considers every aspect of pizza with the same intensity he considers flour. For instance, after years of using Italy’s most storied tomatoes, Bianco started a tomato company in California. He decided legendary Italian tomatoes weren’t good enough for him.

Bianco’s pizza-making career has been an odyssey to pursue ever-better ingredients. Married with a similar approach to technique, his unceasing quest for the best ingredients has made his pizza better than the rest, and even better over time.

Why go through the trouble of knowing grain farmers, understanding flour milling, and doggedly pursuing elite ingredients when making pizza?

Bianco says: “You can only go so fast in a Prius.”

click to enlarge Vargas works the 800-degree ovens at Myke's Pizza. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Vargas works the 800-degree ovens at Myke's Pizza.
Jackie Mercandetti

“Pizza Myke! Pizza Myke!”

A little girl prances down the sidewalk, leading her mom and chanting.

“Hi Penny, how you doing?” Myke Olsen calls to her as he works.

Olsen and the girl’s mom have an exchange. Olsen speaks sincerely, like a cool college professor who has tenure and nothing to lose, but without a trace of ego. “All this pizza,” the mom says, nodding at her kids.
“They’re growing up right.”

“What are you guys doing tonight?” Olsen asks.

“I don’t know. Do you have any specials?”

“We do,” Olsen says. “It’s a white pizza with cherry, corn, and smoked Gouda.”

“Oh, yum!”

The horn of the light rail clatters; a train glides into vision. Somebody else asks Olsen a question about dough, and the train sloughs away down the rails.

His potato-bacon pie is one of the best in town. So is his marinara, which is a rolling plain of tomato sauce, scattered sails of torn basil, sparse garlic slivers, and no cheese. Untouched by cheese, really just flavor-accented tomato sauce, the pizza catapults Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes (Bianco’s brand) and the quality of Olsen’s slightly tangy, long-fermented, bread-basket dough to the forefront.

“I grew up eating tomatoes out of my grandpa’s garden in Utah,” he says of the marinara’s nostalgic genesis. “He would always serve them to us with salt and pepper, and it was always the most amazing thing.”

You could almost access Olsen’s memory through the beautiful pizza, finished with salt and pepper, just like his grandfather’s garden tomatoes. The special he was pealing roughly every third pie? On the same lofty tier.

“A lot of my favorite experiences with pizza have been when I’ve tried something that’s not common,” he says. “I remember the second time I went to Pizzeria Bianco and had the Rosa there. I don’t know — that’s a special pizza.”

Some of Olsen’s pies come from memory. Some come from ingenuity. The night’s special, firmly in the latter camp, featured halved cherries, sweet corn, and two kinds of Gouda. “We put aged Gouda on all of our pizzas,” Olsen says. “It’s kind of the finishing. We don’t do a lot. We put it on when it comes out; it gives a salty flavor, a little bit of a richer flavor.”

The cherry-corn special wasn’t all light and sunny — like the marinara was, tasting like a lost twin of pasta with simple sauce made from fresh summer tomatoes. Rather, for the special Olsen wanted baroque intensity; he wanted Gouda’s rich flavor to pulse alongside stone fruit and corn, so he added some of his signature cheese smoked. Last time he baked this special, he pickled the cherries. It had been too much. This time he didn’t, opting to keep them plain.

“I feel like they could benefit from some sweetness, or acidity,” Olsen had said earlier, when he and his two co-workers had split the first pizza special of the night.

click to enlarge Vargas tops a pizza as Olsen, onlooking, stretches dough for the next one. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
Vargas tops a pizza as Olsen, onlooking, stretches dough for the next one.
Jackie Mercandetti

“Ohhhhhh,” Vargas had said. “Weren’t we going to do lemon juice?”

“Oh, yeah,” Olsen had replied. “That’s a no-brainer.”

Olsen continues to banter with the slow-coming crowd. For the first hour his pop-up is open, he is rarely without a customer idling by the black wrought-iron gate outside Mezona. He has sold more pies than he thought he would given the heat. People are dallying in the heat-swirled air to catch his ear, to ask him about his summer and special, to hear what this promising newcomer to the pizza scene has to say.

When asked about style, Olsen hesitates. “I’m still figuring that out,” he answers. “I think it’s Neapolitan-inspired, but beyond that, I find inspiration where it pops up.” He adds, too, that he had at first wanted to be a pizza maker who makes every pie himself, controlling craft completely. These days, he prefers to work with a team. 

Though Olsen may not have a final style, he certainly has one, like a younger artist cycling through periods. The hallmarks of his are long-fermented dough treated with a baker’s wisdom, top-notch ingredients, smart use of flour, finishing with Gouda, creative topping combos that jive orchestrally, kindness, and swinging like jazz players on the superheated sidewalk.

“I’d like to open a physical location at some point,” Olsen wishes.

Now, though, he sets up on the street. And now he adjusts his bandanna, wipes away sweat. Now he ropes olive oil onto a pie stippled with soppressata, then moves to start on a new lobe of dough. And now cars slosh past, planes snail in the sky, and the slow ballet of pizza creation plays out on the sidewalk in Mesa, not busy with walkers, so hot that sweat forms instantly, but there the heedless pizza-makers work, pealing and saucing anyway.

As evening turns to a desert summer night, the stellar pies keeps coming. Olsen sells out despite the heat. It feels like a nice end. It feels like a new beginning.

What makes Phoenix pizza baked by Olsen, Bianco, and others so good? It isn’t the heat, aridity, elevation, or latitude. It isn’t any particular geographic features of place that, the conditions aligned, led to the birth of something novel — as with the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the dawn of agriculture, as with the creation of pizza in Naples. It isn’t even the recent resurgence of local grains, as most top pizza-makers in Phoenix are using wheat from outside the state or country.

It is place, but not directly because of geographical features. It is Phoenix, a city that has tripled in size in two generations, and that is the capital of a state that has existed for just four, meaning the clay of the culture hasn’t fully set yet. It is a still new-feeling space that doesn’t have the ancient rules of Naples or Palermo, a culture open to a guy starting in a grocery or on the sidewalk.

Most of all, it is the people: Bianco lighting a fire, artisans like Olsen carrying the flame, and the people of Phoenix, who have a deep appetite for pizza. The demand sets the field for the creators to create, to keep improving, just as in the hungry port city where bakers first pulled pizza from focaccia, in the shadow of Vesuvius hundreds of years ago.

click to enlarge The best pizza in the land: Chris Bianco's Rosa. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
The best pizza in the land: Chris Bianco's Rosa.
Jackie Mercandetti

Myke’s Pizza
31 South Robson #103, Mesa
(outside Cider Corps)*
Thursday to Saturday 5 to 8:30 p.m.
*As of press time, Olsen was planning to move his operation to outside of Cider Corps every night the pop-up is open. Check the Myke’s Pizza Instagram for details (and specials).

Pizzeria Bianco
623 Adams Street (plus another location)
Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday noon to 7 p.m.

Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana
8977 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (plus other locations)
Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

LAMP Pizzeria
8900 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale
Tuesday to Thursday 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 4 to 9 p.m.

La Piazza PHX
1 North First Street
Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday noon to 9:30 p.m.; Monday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Piazza Romana
10210 West McDowell Road #120, Avondale
Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6 p.m

Crisp Premium Pizza
7111 East Fifth Avenue, Suite F, Scottsdale
Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 7 p.m.

Forno 301
1616 North Central Avenue, #104
Daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

603 North Fifth Avenue
Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.; Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Fabio on Fire
8275 West Lake Pleasant Parkway, #101, Peoria
Tuesday to Thursday 3 to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Bottega Pizzeria Ristorante
19420 North 59th Avenue, Glendale
Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.