Chef News

Marco Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco on Heirloom Wheat and What Makes Great Bread

Marco Bianco, Bread Baker Pizzeria Bianco 623 East Adams Street

This is the first part of our interview with Marco Bianco, the bread baker for the Bianco restaurants. Today, we get the scoop on Arizona's heirloom wheat and Bianco's thoughts about bread's big comeback. Be sure to return tomorrow when he dishes on his brother Chris -- the pizza savant -- as a child and how their parents met.

See also: - Tastemaker 45: Marco Bianco - - Chris Bianco to Open Pizzeria Bianco in Tucson This Fall - In A New Space Behind Pane Bianco, Hayden Flour Mills Is Back In Action

It doesn't take much to get Marco Bianco talking about the intricate science of bread baking. In fact, the simplest question (for example, "What do you do?") will be enough to set him on a speech about the importance of fermentation, perfect timing, and practice.

As bread baker for Pizzeria Bianco, Trattoria Bianco and Pane Bianco, he's responsible for pulling between 200 and 300 crusty loaves of bread out of the oven at Pane Bianco every day. Though he does the baking for all the restaurants, he does most of his work out of Pane Bianco. Preparing that much bread means constantly working a day or two ahead, lots of planning, and a great sense of timing. Bianco compares baking bread to surfing: A baker must know when the bread's yeast has created the perfect amount of fermentation, the same way a surfer has to catch a wave just before it crests. Wait too long and the bread loses flavor; you've missed the wave. Go too early and it won't have the perfect texture; you get crushed.

"I'm a good baker," he'll admit. "But I'm doing it backwards"

By that, he means that though he's been baking bread for 16 years, he just recently has begun to feel like a "real" baker. He's almost entirely self-taught, learning everything he knows from his brother, books, and the Internet. What he learned through trial and error he's now starting to understand scientifically. Most recently, he's into the reappearance of heirloom wheat.

If you're familiar with idea of heirloom tomatoes, then you might already have figured out that heirloom wheat refers to the hundreds of varieties of ancient grains that used to grow around the world. Modern farming has all but gotten rid of these varieties, in favor of two of three different types of wheat that are the most resilient, highest-yielding, or offering the best protein structure.

But farmers all over the country are starting to rediscover local varieties of wheat. In Arizona -- specifically, from the stone mill of Hayden Flour Mills -- Bianco now can get flour made from local White Sonora Wheat.

According to Bianco, Portugese and Spanish missionaries brought it to Arizona; it's one of the oldest surviving wheat varieties in North America. Bianco uses it (well, technically a mixture of the heirloom wheat flour and modern flour, for structure) to make bread and pasta for the Bianco restaurants, bringing a taste of Arizona history into the food.

"We're just a little pizzeria," he says. "But we want to go beyond where the average guy quits."

This fall, you can catch Bianco -- and a slew of other local chefs, including FnB's Charlene Badman, Crepe Bar's Jeff Kraus, and Brat Haüs' Payton Curry, not to mention agricultural ecologist Gary Nabhan -- in the documentary Rise of the Grains, which will present heritage wheat as the next big thing to hit the culinary world.

Though recent trends have brought awareness about local produce and meats, the idea hasn't fully transferred into the world of bread. Bianco, and others, see that trend on the horizon, particularly in light of the increase in gluten allergies. The combination of heirloom wheat and longer fermentation processes (a key difference between large scale manufactured bread and artisan bread) cause "wheat belly." He says artisan bread and locally sourced heirloom wheat could be a solution.

"I think it's really making a comeback," he says.

Ten words to describe you: Talkative, funny, social, passionate, fair, diplomatic, proud, adventurous, curious, and cautious.

Biggest pet peeve: Rudeness and bad manners.

One food you can't live without: Pasta.

Most undervalued ingredient: Sea salt.

Five qualities to look for in good bread: Natural yeasty flavor, well-baked crust, nice chewiness, good cell structure (crumb), which shows good fermentation. Light to the touch. Good scoring that looks visually good on the table and also allows the bread to lift to its greatest potential.

Best tip for a home baker: Experiment a lot and keep a bread journal. Write down every detail during the entire process to learn from each time you bake.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria