As a restaurant town, Phoenix still gets a bum rap: too many chains, too few ethnic, no restaurant-rich urban core, and no famous equivalent to Philly's cheesesteak or Chicago's hot dog to call our own. But there's one thing we do have in abundance, and it's great pizza. Seriously, we are a first-rate pizza town.
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We can thank James Beard award-winner Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco for that, the guy who showed us that pizza could be other-worldly when made with premium, locally sourced ingredients and great care. Here are 11 pizza places turning out artisanal or damn-close-to-artisanal pies.
Aric Mei (son of Nello's pizza scion Dan Mei) transformed a midcentury beauty parlor into a sleek, retro pizza parlor, hiring Jared Porter, who brings loads of pie-making experience from LGO, to crank them out. Knowing that he wanted pizzas with enough structure to hold up to his creative toppings and enough stability to be consistent (essential when you're cranking out 500 pizzas per day), Porter started with the Nello's recipe and went from there, creating hand-stretched, chewy and slightly bread-y pies, blistered from the wood-burning oven. Although you can build your own pizzas here, why bother when you can have one of Porter's wildly creative specialty pies which rotate by season? At the moment (and this will change by March 6), he's featuring the phenomenal Manzo, topped with braised short rib, white bean puree, broccoli rabe, and horseradish crema (8-inch, $10; 12-inch, $14). Florid? You bet. Best eaten with a knife and fork, this thing is like a rustic Italian supper on a pizza plate. Look for a seafood pizza and a hunter's-style pizza involving rabbit sausage in the days to come.
At his cozy Italian market-cum-restaurant, Giovanni Scorzo makes pizza on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday nights, and his regulars keep his calendar in their heads, showing up promptly at 6:15 for Scorzo's superb pies. Fired in 90 seconds, they emerge from his fancy Italian-imported oven soft and pillowy around the edges. Insiders don't mind splurging on two of his specialties -- a rich, swoon-worthy artichoke and black truffle combo, drizzled with truffle oil that you'll smell before it ever hits the table ($27) and a luscious lobster pizza, topped with garlic, tomato, oregano and a smidge of mozzarella ($27). Affordable and equally delicious traditional pizzas (Scorzo usually offers six or seven choices priced between $15-$17) are also available.
On weekend nights, chef-owner Justin Piazza has lines out the door to his cozy, no-frills pizzeria in downtown Glendale, and it's surely no coincidence that Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives ate on this now-hallowed ground. TV stardust aside, Piazza turns out terrific pizza, deemed VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana or Real Neapolitan Pizza) by Italy's VPN Association, which means he's required to follow strict rules about ingredients (using finely milled OO flour from Italy, for example) as well as the cooking process. All you really need to know is his wood-fired, brick oven pies are wonderfully tender, offering up just the right amount of tug per bite. Although the place is justifiably famous for the Bianca (a rich white pizza dotted with clumps of ricotta, $12), the new one called Dolce Diavolo (Sweet-Spicy) is every bit as delicious, topped with sopressata, house-made mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, fiery pickled Calabrian chiles and honey ($13). And if you're lucky, you'll be there on a night they're making Montanara (fried pizza, the traditional street food of Naples) as a special.
This sweet neighborhood spot -- its name an acronym for first-time restaurant-owners Lindsay and Matt Pilato -- turns out brilliant pies: thin-crust Neapolitan numbers charred from a red-hot stopover in a red-tiled wood-burning oven. Don't think for a minute that these pizza parvenus don't know what they're doing. Matt attended a real-deal Italian pizza school in San Francisco, and his 20 pies (14 reds, 6 whites) are a revelation. So far, it's The Kicker (another spicy one strewn with Calabrese salami and Calabrian peppers, $16) and the Geppetto (topped with Italian sausage, Gorgonzola and caramelized onion marmalade, $16) that light up my life, but I fully intend to work my way down this appealing list.
Noca just jumped into the pizza-making business late last year, and already, this upscale neighborhood joint is cranking out some of the most phenomenal pies in town -- without a wood-burning oven. Chef Claudio Urciuoli uses a mix of local grains and premium flours plus lots of water, giving his dough a long fermentation time to coax out more flavor. His pizzas are slightly darker in color and their texture is light and crisp, more akin to a Tuscan schiacciata than a floppy Neapolitan. But never mind the nomenclature. Just eat the pies -- ethereal pre-dinner nibbles that will rock your world. Lemon schiacciata, adorned with sliced lemon, ricotta, rosemary and specialty EVOO, is a citrus-perfumed evocation of Itay, while the pizza fritta -- lightly fried in olive oil, topped with ingredients and popped in the oven -- is crunchy, soulful Italian street food, historically made by the pizzaiolo's wife from leftover dough. Urciuoli tops it with spicy sausage, mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, oregano, and fancy EVOO. One bite and you will say, "Where've you been all my life?" Schiacciatas are $9 at lunch, $12 at dinner. Pizza fritta (dinner only) is also $12.
Any restaurant busting out 450 pizzas a day (assembled by young, green guys who are Chris Bianco in their dreams) is more mainstream than artisanal in approach. Artisanal, by definition, means "small batch." But here's the thing. Craig DeMarco and Lauren Bailey of Upward Projects have set out to make great pizza for the neighborhood, pizza that's way more interesting than your standard pepperoni and cheese from the chain on the corner. And they're doing it. Certified master baker MJ Coe created the dough recipe (the foundation for any good pizza) and his crust, which comes from a combination gas-wood oven, is first-rate: light and slightly chewy, puffy at the edges with a bit of crisp on the bottom. The Casanova -- a salty-sweet-bitter combo of prosciutto, dates, ricotta, pecorino and arugula -- is yummy proof that being even halfway artisanal is way better than not being artisanal at all.
Back in the day, MJ Coe created the sourdough pizza dough for this hectic neighborhood hotspot as well, and lots of us have been loving those tangy-crust LGO pies ever since. Baked in a deck oven and topped with ingredients such as corn, goat cheese, broccolini and fennel, they feel a bit like the trendy California pizzas of the '90s, which means they're comforting and fun at once. One of my favorites is the Avocado ($14), topped with avocado, tomatoes, basil, lemon zest, and (for an extra three bucks) prosciutto. So light it's almost guilt-free.
Chef Guido Saccone grew up making pizza in Italy, traveling the country as a pizzaiolo before heading to the States and, eventually, Cibo. His upbringing informs his fresh, simple food and, of course, his charred and blistered wood-fired pies, topped with premium ingredients such as top-grade San Daniele prosciutto, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano and San Marzano tomatoes. Build your own pizza or choose among 20-some-odd possibilities, including classics such as the Margherita and the Quattro Formaggi ($10.50-$14.50). I love having sturdy, rustic options such as the Salsiccia con Patate: sausage, potato and mozzarella.
Like Noca and Cibo, Davanti has an Italian heavy-hitter on board, a guy who's been knee-deep in dough for as long as he can remember. Fabio Ceschetti, a pizzaiolo from Puglia, makes the pizzas here, turning out thin-crust, wood-fired pies that possess a teeny bit of puff and the requisite chew ($11-$14). The Pizza della Terra -- topped with mushrooms, braised leeks, taleggio, and truffle oil -- is as earthy and irresistible as its names suggests ($13).
Talk about legit! Pomo is not only VPN-certified but also APN-certified, which means it's won approval from two very fussy Neapolitan pizza associations. And if that double-whammy weren't enough, Pomo also has two pizzaiolos to man the wood-fired brick oven brought over from Italy. Like La Piazza, Pomo uses imported organic wheat flour (OO) from Naples, and adds spring water to its dough mix, which rises for 24 hours. The result is a soft, thin-crust pizza with a wet center, which some people love and others simply don't get. But it's hard to argue with the terrific combos (nearly 30 in all) and lavishly applied premium ingredients, imported from Italy ($13-$18). The Principe -- heaped with sliced prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula and shaved Parmesan is just one of many stellar examples.
So now we've come full circle, back to the guy who started the artisanal pizza trend in Phoenix. How do I feel about Bianco's ballyhooed product after nine days of eating my weight in pizza everywhere else? Like I've come home. I still love his thin-crust pies. They're always the perfect balance of crustiness, tenderness and chewiness, creatively topped with the best local ingredients Bianco can find. These days, Bianco's newest venture -- Italian Restaurant at Town & Country -- offers three pizzas every day, a Margherita, a Marinara, and a Market pizza -- the Rosa (one of my all-time favorites, $16) the day of my visit. Topped with red onion, pistachios, rosemary, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, it's rich, greasy from the buttery quality of the cheese, and so very good it takes all the restraint I can muster not to polish off the entire thing.
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