Eat This Now

In Hard Times, a Pizza Legend Returns to the Giant Pies of His Youth

A New York-style pie from the hand of pizzaiolo Chris Bianco.
A New York-style pie from the hand of pizzaiolo Chris Bianco. Chris Malloy
On a recent evening, the sun starting to dip low, Chris Bianco took to the oven at Pane Bianco on Central Avenue. Lately, this hasn’t been a common sight. The pizza legend had taken on more of a general’s role, directing people and pieces rather than shaping, stretching, and baking dough. But there he was, T-shirt and shock of gray hair — wielding a peal, studying crust, moving pies from hot to cool spots as needed.

Those pies? The 18-inch New York-style pizza of his youth.

"What brought me comfort as a kid was big New York pizzas, what I grew up with," Bianco says.

Aside from a special dinner at Pane Bianco Van Buren earlier this year, Bianco has never rolled out these pizzas for wide public consumption. He had been planning to release them, plans that gained an immediacy under the financial pressures of the coronavirus. Like every other restaurant operator in the state, Bianco has seen Governor Doug Ducey eliminate dine-in eating, a necessary move as the virus spreads. Bianco’s five local restaurants have stayed open for takeout and (some of them) delivery.

For hospitality industry workers and restaurant operators like Bianco, the crisis has become dire. “I was talking to a bunch of my friends all over the country,” Bianco says. “The one common denominator is that we don’t know what to do. This isn’t in our playbook.”

click to enlarge A New York-style white pie, shot after some time in the box. - CHRIS MALLOY
A New York-style white pie, shot after some time in the box.
Chris Malloy
Though his team is working hard, he acknowledges that a business model without dine-in is only sustainable for so long. No amount of hard work is going to be enough, Bianco and many others believe, without government assistance. “It’s like circles in a pond,” he says. “They only go out so far.”

In the face of the unprecedented, he has been uploading inspirational videos to Instagram. Against long odds, he and his crew have been working anyway. Under great physical, financial, and emotional pressure, he has been making pizzas plucked from the memory of his youth.

The New York-style pizzas for sale at Pane Bianco Central are officially 18 inches, but sometimes Bianco stretches them to 20. For them, he uses a lower-hydration dough than the ones used at his pizzerias, making for a slightly crisper bite. Your options are red or white. The surface is densely speckled with melted shredded cheese, but also gooey swaths of mozzarella. A low, chewy, shattering crust shows hard char blisters. Slices are big and floppy.

“I’m trying to stay as close to what I remember growing up, whether the Bronx or Brooklyn, New Jersey or Philly,” Bianco says.

This is a simple pizza. It recalls the versions made by early immigrants from Italy, often the grandparents of folks operating the pizzerias of today, like Bianco. What he tries to do with his New York-style pie is marry their humility with elite sourcing. “The reality was the techniques were tried and true,” Bianco says, reflecting on East Coast pizza in the days of old. “The reality was the ingredients were limited in that time.”

While honoring New York pizzas of generations past and closer to now, Bianco adds his own spin. The result: pies that slightly bend the New York-style genre.

For his red pies, he uses his canned tomatoes and a “Bronx” blend of cheeses that, though evolving, recently united caciocavallo, Locatelli, and mozzarella. His white pies will also feature a changing cheese roster, one different from the red blend. Earlier this week, that meant Parmigiano-Reggiano, fontina, and mozzarella. You can also select toppings, like mortadella and soppressata, but these will change daily based on what Pane Central has on hand.

click to enlarge Bianco boxes two freshly made New York-style pies, starts on new ones. - CHRIS MALLOY
Bianco boxes two freshly made New York-style pies, starts on new ones.
Chris Malloy
But Bianco’s methods are still evolving. Right now, he isn’t working one oven but two.

He has been experimenting with using both a gas-electric oven and a wood-fired oven for single New York-style pies. This allows him to more strategically navigate the cool spots of Pane Central’s ovens, bigger than what he uses in the pizzerias. The oven combination provides the evenness of the former oven plus the wood smoke, char, and finishing of the latter. Though his New York-style pizzas are now ready for takeout, Bianco still has to fine-tune a few minute details.

You can get your hands on one of these $25 pizzas by calling Pane Bianco on Central Avenue. They are available for takeaway starting at 4 p.m. every day but Sunday. In the coming weeks, Bianco is planning to bake these pizzas at Pane Bianco Van Buren, too. To keep your social distancing at Central Avenue, wait for your pizza in the parking lot.

Buying a pizza, of course, will help keep restaurants and people in business. “I’m an eternal optimist-slash-realist, and if we don’t plan for today and hope for tomorrow, we’re kidding ourselves,” Bianco says. “We’re doing everything we can for today so we have a tomorrow.”

And "everything” means the staff is still boxing pies, ringing orders, and looking over his shoulder for tips. “Everything” means the master back behind the oven.

“Everything takes a village, and we’re just trying to do our part,” Bianco says. “We’re just a raindrop in a puddle of good intentions.”

Pane Bianco Central
4404 North Central Avenue
Hours: New York-style pizza available from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy