Bianco's Italian Restaurant: Low-Key, Fabulous Food, and Sipping the Olive Oil Is Acceptable

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions. Share a few photos, some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Italian Restaurant
Location: 4743 North 20th Street (Town and Country Shopping Center)
Open: Just over three weeks
Eats: Italian
Price point: $31-$60

​Last October, rumors were flying, then were confirmed, that legendary pizza master Chris Bianco was planning to open a trattoria in Central Phoenix. And on January 16, he did just that.

His much-buzzed-about new restaurant, called Italian Restaurant, is in Town and Country Shopping Center (Camelback Road and 20th Street), the same shopping center that, in 1994, was the original home of Pizzeria Bianco before it landed two years later at 623 East Adams Street in downtown's Heritage Square.

Featuring traditional Italian favorites as well as Italian-American creations on a small menu that changes daily and is fueled by top-notch ingredients, Bianco's got chef Claudio Urciuoli (the former Prado chef hired in 2010 by Bianco) at the helm, as well as Bianco's mother, Francesca, who occasionally lends a hand and makes the desserts.

Let's go in and have a bite, shall we?

Italian Restaurant doesn't take reservations and because it's a Bianco restaurant, there's a good chance you may have to wait. Thankfully, my experience wasn't too bad, around 45 minutes, which I spent watching the bustling kitchen through a large, outdoor window (fun!) and partaking in a glass of pre-dinner wine on the restaurant's patio.

"Everything we serve here is as fresh as humanly possible."

This phrase, or something like it, will be uttered by your waiter as you're seated. And, upon each bite of your ensuing dish, or dishes, this fact will be verified by your taste buds. Breads, pasta, and cheeses are made in house, vegetables and fruits are purchased only when in season, seafood is caught wild, and top-notch meat is free-range and natural.

If you start with the fantastic house focaccia and premium olive oil from Pacific Sun, your server might suggest you take a sip of the brightly flavored oil from its small bowl, as you would a fine wine. Doing this will flush your cheeks and clear your palate for the next course. Highly recommended, but only with olive oil of this quality.

There is a fresh orange and fennel salad with perfectly cooked shrimp (with their heads still attached, I might add) from the shrimp-fishing port of Guaymas, in Sonora, Mexico. Pieces of large-leaf parsley offset the sweetness of the juicy orange slices, now in season, making for a lovely array of tastes and textures.

Despite nearly being driven mad by the smell of fresh basil from spaghetti dishes passing by my table, I stuck with my decision to order of the roasted pork shank from Devil's Gulch in Marin County, California. I was glad I did. One touch of the shank, roasted up to six hours, with my fork and it opened up like a meaty flower, tender beyond tender and touched with a sweetness that made bites of the accompanying Brussels sprouts and large, nutty pieces of kamut (considered by many to be the great-great-grandfather of grains) a comforting collection of tastes. I wished it would've lasted longer.

Just as successful was my cacciucco (Italian seafood stew). Urciuoli's combination of meaty halibut, Guaymas shrimp, and stellar Monterey calamari floating in a rust-colored, herb-laden, and spicy broth demanded to be eaten slowly, savoring the complex flavors of the stew with deliberate bites. Make sure you have foresight to save a piece of the aforementioned foccacia bread for sopping up the broth after you've eaten all the seafood.

Desserts, courtesy of Bianco's mother, should not be missed. My flourless chocolate cake drizzled with homemade cream was a crazy-sweet and dense creation, more like a brownie, and the perfect ending to a first-rate meal.

Italian Restaurant's small, cozy room with mismatched tables and chairs, tons of natural light, and paintings and photographs on beige-colored walls, seems to mimic a bustling dining room of an Italian home and complement the warmly satisfying fare.

The piped-in indie rock was too loud on my visit and the cold, steel community table seems out of place, given the warmth of the surroundings, but these are minor quibbles.

Bianco's Italian Restaurant should be at the top of your must-try list. I can't wait to return.

Italian Restaurant
4743 North 20th Street (Town and Country Shopping Center)
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday

What say you, Bianco fans? Have you been to Italian Restaurant yet? What did you think?

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