Noon Pie

It's been several months since the hugely popular Pizzeria Bianco stopped offering lunch, yet my phone still rings with hungry diners' lamentations -- and speculations. Perhaps chef-owner Chris Bianco has gotten too big for his pizza pans, callers propose, and doesn't want to serve the common lunchtime diner. It might be he's trying to wring more money out of his guests, with higher dinner prices and increased opportunity to sell alcohol. Or maybe, after 12 years of wowing the dining public, media and bestowers of culinary awards, his candle is finally flickering; lunch just didn't shovel enough money his way.

Ha. As one patron who has been practically assaulted by rabid customers fighting for space in line to lunch at Bianco, I can guarantee lack of traffic had nothing to do with the decision to offer only dinner. As far as "common" lunchers, such a clientele doesn't exist -- everyone's money is equally green. And higher prices? Hardly. Pizzeria Bianco has always offered the same pricing at both lunch and dinner.

Sorry, my paranoid little public, but Bianco tells me his decision to close at lunch stems from a desire to improve quality control, even at the loss of significant profit. Boring, but true. As chief pizza-maker and oven operator at lunch and dinner, Bianco found that an increasingly aggressive SRO lunch crowd was beating him down. Even with just 40 tables, keeping up with the to-order pizzas, salads and sandwiches, particularly within the limited time constraint most lunchtime diners face, was increasingly exhausting.

The reason his downtown Phoenix eatery has won so many awards, Bianco explains, is that everything he serves is 100 percent fresh, organic and handmade. That includes mozzarella, tomatoes, herbs and meats; even organic flour, vegetables chopped only on order, and hand-mixed dough.

"It's impossible to create, bake and present that kind of meal in the 20 minutes a lunchtime diner might have," he says. "I don't have prepared ingredients sitting around, ready to just throw together. Besides, if they don't have the time to enjoy really good food, why are they bothering with me? They can get fast, pre-made crap anywhere."

You go, Bianco.

Of course, few restaurants are as fortunate as Pizzeria Bianco is. Most suspend noontime service because of lack of demand. The Old Town Tortilla Factory threw lunch by the wayside several months ago, to similar wonder of Valley regulars. This Zagat-listed eatery serves nice meals from a limited menu -- a listing so compact, in fact, that it seems like midday meals would be a simple accomplishment. But the challenge was in service, I'm told on a recent dinner there.

"I dunno, I guess it just didn't work," our smiling waitress confides. "We never knew if we were going to get enough customers, so there was, like, only one server on for lunch, and he'd have to run all over the place if it got busy. The money was great, though -- he'd get all the tips."

Not offering lunch does make perfect sense for some restaurants, such as high-end steak houses like Ruth's Chris, Morton's, Mastro's and Fleming's. Ruth's Chris, which has experimented with lunch service in some of its restaurants including the Valley, no longer offers the meals except in high-volume cities like Washington, D.C., says Scottsdale manager Diana Seifert.

"People just don't eat large portions of heavy steaks at that time of day," she says. "We're always really busy at dinner, but when we do offer lunch [December only, to capitalize on holiday shoppers], we still only do maybe a dozen tables a day. That's not worth it for us."

Sometimes a diner's suspicion is correct -- a trendy restaurant du jour may choose to sell a similar meal for twice the price through limiting labor and overhead to dinner operations. A spokesperson for Houston's tells me that some of this nationwide chain's locations began offering dinner-only after realizing that their customer base was so dedicated to experiencing their food that the restaurants could almost set their own hours and prices (we're lucky, I guess: Valley Houston's do serve lunch).

Restricted service makes financial sense for the restaurants, of course, but what about those of limited budget who use lower lunch prices to experiment with high-end concepts? Harris' and Beef Eaters find ample folks eager to fill their bellies with hefty noontime beef, for example, at greatly reduced cost -- Harris' grilled New York steak with bourbon-glazed onions, potato and vegetable is $15 at lunch; and $29 for a dinner portion plus an additional $4 for the onions.

I Like a Well-Parked Plane: How America West's marketing evangelists came up with that ad campaign is beyond me. And after my AmWest flight from New York City last week, I can attest that passengers much prefer a mobile plane to one that's parked, no matter how perfectly. Our plane sat at the gate for more than 45 minutes, in fact, after experiencing "mechanical difficulties." The problem was with a Dobbs International Services catering truck, broken down behind our left wing -- a case of the much-maligned airline food fighting back, perhaps?

I Like a Well-Packed Plane Even Better: Such was the passenger outrage over AmWest's carrying enough dressing for just half of the flight's luncheon salads that the pilot came on the PA to ask our forgiveness. I expected a little more -- such as soliciting volunteers to "bump" their dressing allocation, who'd give it up for double the sauce and a free cocktail on a later flight.

After Dinner Mint: Look for a completely new concept coming soon at The Ranch on Camelback Mountain. As part of a $2.2 million renovation, the classic property is being redesigned as a "resort of the future," with plans -- not yet firm -- including a state-of-the-art spa and possibly an Asian theme. So is the historic John Gardiner Tennis Ranch going Jetsons? Stay tuned.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet