If you take even a passing interest in Arizona’s culinary scene, you know the name Chris Bianco, the self-made pizzaiolo and restaurateur whose handicraft and devotion to quality ingredients has singlehandedly made Phoenix, of all places, synonymous with world-class pizza.
Bianco’s pizza has been lauded as one of the best in the country by everyone from Martha Stewart to the James Beard Foundation (which awarded him the regional Southwest Best Chef award in 2003). Bianco’s success and influence has been so great and so unprecedented in the Valley, the Phoenix food scene might easily be divided into two general historical eras: Before Bianco and After Bianco.
So, here we are, relatively deep into the Bianco period. It’s an era where Arizona’s long, hot growing season is celebrated, where local is almost always best, where Sonoran heritage grain is king, and where Phoenix’s dubious reputation as a second-tier American city is challenged by the force of the city’s vitality and utter lack of pretension. The spirit-dampening, high-rent, pressure-cooker forces of living and cooking in a bigger, colder, less amenable metropolis are not the major theme in this town. As it turns out, Phoenix is not a bad place to make unpretentious, rigorously good food that moves with the seasons. That’s something Bianco figured out a couple of decades ago, and it’s a revelation that has helped spur the development of a Phoenix food scene that is languidly shedding its steak-and-chain reputation.
Tratto, which opened in May, is the newest restaurant to join the small but flourishing Bianco family restaurant empire. It’s located at the fashionable-again Town & Country Plaza in midtown Phoenix, the third Bianco restaurant to make its home there after the very first Pizzeria Bianco opened in the mid-1990s. Tratto is a small but deliberate shift away from the universe of wood-burning pizza ovens. It’s the only Bianco restaurant that doesn’t serve pizza, and the first to veer into traditional fine-dining terrain. Its name, Tratto, evokes the classic Italian trattoria. But the name also denotes, in Italian, shades of something slightly more precise and intimate: a brushstroke, sketch, or line.
You might say that the precise brushstroke, executed with workmanlike consistency, is the basic unit of Bianco’s cooking. Diehard pizza aficionados make the pilgrimage to Phoenix for a taste of Bianco’s famously blistery pies, not for the food’s strict adherence to Neapolitan tradition — that is almost beside the point here — but for the nuanced, thoughtful use of optimal ingredients, arrayed into simple yet wonderful compositions. There is a well-worn, perfected-over-time characteristic to Bianco’s cooking that is at once unpretentious and elegant.
What comes out of a Bianco kitchen, in other words, often feels timeless, which might be the best way to describe the feeling of sitting in the freshly minted Tratto dining room. Tratto, occupying the small space left behind by the Cypress Grill, offers all the virtues of the classic neighborhood bistro: crisp white tablecloths, white plates, the calming glow of tea lights, and a cadre of serious-yet-friendly servers who seem as intimately acquainted with the menu as Bianco himself.
It’s a lovely and welcoming space, with whitewashed wooden floors, a white marble bar, neat shelves of assorted Mason jars brimming with preserves and various amber-hued concoctions, and framed still-life paintings of quotidian yet luminous objects — an old-fashioned chair, corn, fruit — which were painted by Chris Bianco’s father, Leonardo, hanging throughout the space. In the evenings, which is the only time Tratto is currently open, the small 35-seat dining room beckons like a campfire.
The menu is small and focused, feeling much like the natural extension of the work the Bianco team has been doing next door at Pizzeria Bianco for a few years, where pasta dishes, salads, and small plates are served.
At Tratto, you won’t miss the pizza. To get started, you might want to begin with something from the short, accessible wine list, leaning heavy on Italian reds, or a drink off the excellent cocktail menu, crafted by Tratto’s resident bartender, Blaise Faber.
The food side of the menu is divided into classic Italian courses, and it’s frequently revised to reflect the latest farmers market finds. Over the course of a single week, it’s unlikely you’ll see the exact same menu twice. This is part of the appeal, and lingering question, of dining at Tratto — what will the Bianco kitchen devise out of a bounty of late-summer Arizona-grown melons, or maybe bushels of fresh mint?
In mid-summer, the answer might include a refreshing antipasti salad of Arizona-grown cantaloupe and melon, rounded out with slices of cucumber, frilly shavings of fennel, and bits of torn mint. The salad might be dressed lightly in a chile-laced vinaigrette, so that the sweet crispness of the plate is deepened with flashes of heat and aromatics. The overall effect is that of summer at the end of your fork, a sort of respite from the oven heat outside.
There might also be a dish of blistered shishito peppers, the little chiles twisted and creased and punched up with salt. But the most tantalizing thing on the plate will be the smooth puddle of creamy elephant garlic aioli spooned out next to the finger-length peppers. The aioli is as rich, flavorful, and spirit-lifting as anything you might eat during the course of a dinner at Tratto. Your server, reading the signs of pleasure on your face, will probably dispatch another basket of bread so that you can slather your crusty white rolls and spongy whole-wheat slices with more of the ambrosial stuff.
House-cured lardo is an antipasti highlight, the thin cap of the cured fat softly melded onto a long, grilled slice of focaccia bread. The profound richness of it all is livened up with sweet dots of plum jelly. Farinata, meanwhile, the thin and savory crepe of Genoa, is another antipasti mainstay. The buttery, slightly crunchy pancake is redolent with the flavors of chickpeas, pepper, and good-quality olive oil. It might not bowl you over, but it has a sort of simple, light, oniony appeal that’s ideal for whetting your appetite for plates still to come.
Primi courses feature a rotating roster of fresh-made pasta dishes. A standard primi dish like homemade gnocchi is very good, the bundles of pasta as soft and buoyant as marshmallows, served with a wonderful heirloom tomato sauce that’s mottled with dense crumbles of ricotta. Even better, though, is a bowl of slinky trenette, dripping in a white wine butter sauce, and served with parsley-scented chicken livers that have been cooked to a sort of fuzzy, melting softness. It might turn out to be the best pasta plate you’ve ever had.
It’s worth making room for a secondi protein course, especially for something like the braised pork shank. The pork is dark and succulent, its flavor heightened with the addition of late-summer peaches and chicos corn. The wrinkly, slightly shriveled kernels of corn, which have been dried in the old Southwestern tradition, are plumped back to life by a meaty, savory broth, which is accented with sugary wedges of reconstituted dried peaches. The total effect is sweet, soft summer smokiness, all held together in a complex, delicious balance.
There is also a very good Two Wash Ranch chicken dish, whose juicy smokiness is beautifully paired with a bundle of slightly shriveled Arizona grapes, the fruit rippling with concentrated sweetness. Like much of what comes out of the Bianco kitchen, it’s a simple dish, but simple is not the same thing as easy.
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Dessert changes often, and might mean something like a flaky peach crostata, partially smothered in a cool, sweet gravy of freshly whipped cream. It might mean a milky, spongey classic like homemade tiramisu, or it might mean something as simple as a watermelon salad served with fresh herbs. No matter what, like most dishes at Tratto, it will be simple and refined, and there will probably be a delicate balance at play designed to register pure pleasure and satiety. It is not a bad time to eat and drink in Phoenix.
4743 North 20th Street
Hours: Tuesdays through Thursdays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Grilled focaccia with house-cured lardo $14
Ricotta gnocchi with heirloom tomato sauce $19
Braised pork shank with peaches and chicos corn $30