Cafe Reviews


Pizzeria Bianco, Town & Country Shopping Center, 4709 North 20th Street, Phoenix, 381-1779. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.

There's a tale about an old man, a boy and a donkey that has a wonderful message.

The three set out on a trip. As they get under way, the man puts the boy on the donkey's back and leads the animal on foot. Soon, they meet a traveler, who scolds the boy for letting the old man walk while the youth rides. So they switch places--the boy leading the donkey, the old man on the animal's back.

A bit farther on, they encounter other people on the road, who chide the old man for riding while the child walks. So the old man pulls the youngster up with him on top of the donkey.

They're moving happily along until another traveler criticizes them for placing such a heavy burden on a poor animal. So they both get off and walk alongside the donkey.

Finally, after a few more miles, they come upon an incredulous sojourner, who wonders out loud why the old man and boy are walking, when either could ride on the donkey.

The moral: No matter how hard you try, you can't please everyone all the time.

And that's exactly what I like about Pizzeria Bianco, a friendly, bubbling new pizza parlor tucked away in Town & Country Shopping Center. It's got the courage of its convictions.

The proprietor doesn't offer any heart-smart dishes to attract the one member of everybody's group who's perpetually dieting. There's no veal parmigiana to mollify visiting carnivores from Milwaukee, or spaghetti and meatballs to placate little Johnny. Customers aren't going to find a something-for-everyone menu. They're going to find pizza. Pizzeria Bianco is confident enough to bet that fresh pizza, baked from scratch in a wood-fired brick oven and topped with first-class ingredients, can draw a crowd. From what I've sampled and seen, I'd say it's going to cash that bet.

Pizzeria Bianco occupies the spot that most recently housed Rancho Pinot Grill. It's a small, spare-looking place, with room for about 25 diners at the blond-wood tables. The owner's father did the paintings of vegetables that hang on the walls and give the place some color. The old-fashioned bar top in the five-seat corner bar comes from a defunct New York restaurant. So does the peeling "Italian restaurant" sign over the back door. Diners in search of a view can stare out the window at mall pedestrians, a fountain or the T.J. Maxx across the way. Location isn't the only Rancho Pinot Grill angle. Before summoning the courage and capital to break out on his own, the proprietor of Pizzeria Bianco used to work there, and was responsible for the excellent bread and pasta.

Keeping the fare simple--a few salads, six pizzas and a couple of daily homemade desserts--wasn't his only wise decision. There's no stinting on the ingredients, either. The menu may not have much breadth, but the depth of quality is evident.

You can see it in the antipasto, which has real sparkle. You won't find supermarket cold cuts and cubes of cheese in this beauty. Instead, check out the goat cheese nestled in Belgian endive and drizzled with olive oil, the marinated red peppers, Kalamata olives, Portobello mushrooms, turnips, salami, bits of smoked mozzarella and fontina cheese, and fennel, too, a nice touch. The flavors are intense and satisfying. And accompanying the platter is the same terrific Italian bread I remember from visits to Rancho Pinot Grill. But pizza, of course, is what this place is all about. And these pizzas are about as good as I've had. A key element is the crust. The one here is right on target, not too bready, not too brittle and not too light--just chewy enough to keep your jaws pleasantly occupied. If you want a pizza that doesn't mess with tradition, order the Margherita. Lined with mozzarella, fresh basil and a delicate coating of tomato sauce, this pizza shows ability with the basics. But I'm partial to Pizzeria Bianco's more fanciful creations, which combine inventiveness with first-rate toppings. Take the Rosa. Brushed with olive oil, it's drizzled with Grana Padano, a delightfully fragrant Italian Parmesan cheese. (Only a pizza operation on Rodeo Drive could afford to use the king of Parmesans, Parmigiano Reggiano.) Red onion, rosemary and crushed pistachios add to the fun. The Biancoverde also sings. This time, fresh mozzarella and creamy ricotta furnish the melody line, harmoniously embellished with greens that put the "verde" in the "bianco."

But my favorite is the Wiseguy, a seductive treat that manages to both describe my temperament and cater to my taste. It's fantastic--roasted onions, gobs of smoked mozzarella, aromatic fennel sausage. And for an extra buck, I got a heap of cremini mushrooms thrown on. Earthy and lusty, this pizza is in a league of its own.

In keeping with the "keep it simple" philosophy, all the pizzas are one size--enough to fill up one really hungry person, adequate to handle two dainty-to-moderate appetites.

A few other Pizzeria Bianco touches are also praiseworthy: Celis Golden, a smooth Texas brew, is on tap; good wine is available by the glass; and the espresso is outstanding. Desserts are also worth lingering over, especially if apple tart is the day's sweet. And if you stop by at lunch, you can get a sandwich made with right-out-of-the-oven bread and Italian meats, cheeses and assorted greens.

The staff has been nicely trained to replace cutlery and not rush you. But somebody needs to educate them about ingredients. When I tested them by pointing to fennel, Portobello mushrooms and fontina cheese, my servers didn't have a clue. Like a finely tuned watch or a well-tailored suit, the pizza here is fashioned by a craftsman who knows his craft. Take advantage of it, before success tempts him to open a 100-seat Italian restaurant.

Gourmet Pizza and Pasta Connection, 8806 North 43rd Avenue, Glendale, 435-8379. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Like Pizzeria Bianco, Gourmet Pizza and Pasta Connection does business in a storefront that housed a popular restaurant until success forced a move to bigger, plusher digs.

This place was the original home of Mike's Golden Crust, which quickly outgrew these cozy quarters. There's room for maybe 20 diners, who eat on red-checked oilcloths with green paper placemats. The proprietor, a New Jersey Italian who says he used to work with Mike, is obviously hoping lightning can strike twice in the same spot. Some of the food suggests that his wish just might come true.

What's the difference between a Camelback corridor antipasto and a west-side antipasto? Well, don't waste your time looking for endive, goat cheese and turnips at Gourmet Pizza. Instead, you'll find a ho-hum plate of rolled-up ham, salami, provolone and tasteless winter tomato on top of greenery. The indifferent Italian loaf doesn't have much oomph, either. On the other hand, mozzarella sticks have a lightly breaded, homemade touch. And the bowl of pasta fagiole, a flavorful broth thick with pasta and beans, sports a plebeian heartiness and a plebeian $1.50 price tag. But pizza is the reason you want to make your way here. No, there's no wood-fired brick oven, no Grana Padano cheese and no Portobello mushrooms. There is, however, an enjoyable puffy crust, an appealing variety of toppings and wallet-friendly prices. And the bready crust and generous hand with the toppings will turn even the small pizzas into dinner for two.

Gourmet Pizza's vegetable toppings are particularly noteworthy. For a dollar each, we covered a small pizza with artichokes and eggplant. No cutesy, bite-size morsels here, just big, hefty chunks that you can sink your teeth into.

House specialty pizzas work equally well. The Southwest comes covered with chicken, jack and mozzarella cheese, spiced up with a tangy barbecue sauce. There's even a "Lite" pizza--120 calories a slice, says the menu--featuring spinach and sauted vegetables. If pizza doesn't work for you, the calzone might, especially if you're famished. We ordered the small, and got something big enough to have come with its own mailbox. It's a pizza dough pocket stuffed with mozzarella and ricotta, uncomplicated and tasty. And for four bits more, you can add a pizza topping to the mix. Less distinguished than the pizza and calzone are the two pasta creations we sampled. Lasagna is disappointing, a bit mushy and bland, and drenched in too much sauce. Ricotta-filled manicotti is a better option, but furnishes no special excitement. I don't think I've seen zeppoles since I ate my way through New York's Little Italy a few years ago. It's an East Coast Italian dessert treat, dough shaped into little balls, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. As you can imagine, they aren't exactly the cornerstones of the nutritional pyramid. But who cares? You get 12 to an order. Not quite in the same league is another Little Italy staple, cannoli, a dessert about which I'm terribly picky. I liked the chocolate chips and sprinkles, all right, but the sweetened ricotta cheese filling--the crucial cannoli ingredient--came up a bit short in taste and texture.

Cheap and homey, Gourmet Pizza and Pasta Connection is already a worthy neighborhood pizza spot, with the potential to turn into a west-side dining destination. If that's your neighborhood, check it out.

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Howard Seftel