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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Special Report: Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix, AZ

Pizzeria Bianco
623 E. Adams Street
Phoenix, AZ
(602) 258-8300

Marla Collins' Husband invaded Pizzeria Bianco on 3/9/08.

I arrived at Pizzeria Bianco at 4:50 on Saturday afternoon. I was seated at 9:45 on Saturday night. You read that right: I waited five hours just to be seated.

It was worth the wait.

Pizzeria Bianco, located in historic Heritage Square in downtown Phoenix, has been anointed the best pizza in America by Ed Levine, author of Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.

Going into the meal, I had two competing thoughts. First, the guy who wrote the book can presumably pick an outstanding pizza. But second, he dismisses Chicago-style pizza as being nothing more than a casserole, so I was skeptical of his "expertise."

I spent the afternoon baking in lovely Hohokam Park, spring training home of the 2008 World Champion Chicago Cubs. A little while after the game ended I called Pizzeria Bianco, which only takes a few reservations and only does so for parties of six or more, to ask what time we should get there to avoid waiting too long. The restaurant opens at 5:00, so I was expecting to hear that as long as we got there by 6 or so, we wouldn’t have to wait more than an hour. I was surprised when told that a long line had already formed and that we should get there ASAP. We drove over there and I got in line at 4:50. When they opened the doors and let the first people in, they took names of people in line and gave us all estimated seating times. Ours: between 10 and 10:30.

That shock elicited a short conversation between me, my little sister and her boyfriend. First, there was consensus that there was no way the wait would be that long. Second, we were glad we had eaten a huge, excellent Mexican lunch at Rancho de la Tia Rosa. Third, we were glad we brought books. We were in it for the long haul - this place has been open for 14 years and still has lines like this mean we were in for a treat. And while there were certainly a good number of tourists in line (March is the busiest season), there were plenty of locals willing to endure the wait.

The building next to Pizzeria Bianco is Bar Bianco. It’s even smaller than Pizzeria Bianco, but is the same style of building, dating back a century. The bar only serves beer, wine, a variety of soft drinks and a handful of appetizers. After about an hour wait, two of us had a glass of wine and the three of us split two appetizers: an outstanding prosciutto served with crunchy focaccia toast as well as apple slices, and an even better cheese plate served with three kinds of cheese, two of which were goat’s milk cheeses, raisins, apples and more focaccia toast. The quality of the appetizers and wine had me more excited about dinner.

In addition to the two buildings, there is a courtyard where people can drink and relax while waiting for their names to be called. As the sun went down, the weather cooled off. That, along with the big lunch and the appetizers, made the wait perfectly enjoyable. One detail worth noting about the courtyard: around the edges there are a number of herbs growing, some of which are actually used in Pizzeria Bianco pies. One more detail: having spent the day baking in the desert sun while watching the Cubs beat up on the Diamondbacks, and having had a nice glass of wine, I wanted a little pick-me-up, so I had a Coke. Not just any Coke, but a cane-sugar-filled Mexican Coke. This kind of attention to detail would show up again and again throughout the meal.

Despite the long wait, everyone we saw had good spirits about it. And there were enough repeat customers there to assure all of us newbies that the wait was worth it. Customers are allowed to leave the general area as long as they call in once an hour. There is a movie theater in walking distance, but nothing particularly appealing was playing.

By now some of you are likely wondering a couple of things. First, with all the outdoor seating, why not just eat outside. Second, why not just get the pizzas to go. The answer to both questions is the same: Chris Bianco wants people to enjoy his pizza at their optimal level, and he thinks something is lost once the pizzas leave his restaurant. I think that’s a tad goofy, but it’s his place.

Finally, at about 9:40, we were summoned into the dining room. The inside of the restaurant has a nice rustic charm to it. There is seating at the bar for about six people, and there is table seating for no more than 40 (probably less). The highlight of the inside of the restaurant is unquestionably the oven. The pizza is cooked in a brick, wood-burning oven. Chris Bianco works there every night and makes every pizza.

We ordered two appetizers and four pizzas. One appetizer was a simple salad of local organic greens with a red wine vinaigrette. It was excellent. The other appetizer was a caprese salad that was shockingly good. Good in a way that I didn’t think possible. The tomatoes were perfect, the locally made olive oil was perfecter, and the homemade mozzarella was perfectest. Oh, and the basil, a variety developed in Israel that has adapted well to the Arizona desert, was enormous and added perfect flavor.

The menu has six pizzas and 12 different toppings offered as extras. Three of the pizzas include tomato sauce as an ingredient and three do not. I like sauce, so this (unnecessarily it turned out) raised a red flag. We ended up ordering two with sauce and two without. The two with were a Margherita, to which we added roasted crimini mushrooms and fennel sausage, and a Sonny Boy, which has fresh mozzarella, salami and gaeta olives. The two without sauce were the Biancoverde, which has fresh mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano, ricotta, and arugula, and the Wiseguy, with wood roasted onion, house smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage.

This review has gone on long enough, so I will avoid even trying to adequately describe the perfection of these pizzas. There is a picture of each one below and they were every bit as good as they look. Suffice it to say that every single ingredient was perfect. The only flaw was that the center of each pizza, especially the Biancoverde, was too thin to support the pile of toppings – and there really are piles – no skimping at all. Anyhow, a couple of the ingredients merit special mention. First, the fennel sausage: Bianco buys free range pigs and takes them to Schreiner’s Fine Sausage, who make it according to Bianco’s recipe. It is perfect – so good that my little sister, who normally keeps Kosher, could not resist eating (and loving) a piece. The second ingredient worthy of a special mention is the cheese. I’ve tasted differences in mozzarella on pizza before, but never anything like this. And the smoked mozzarella on the Wiseguy was fantastic.

I just realized I haven’t talked about the crust other than its thickness (or lack thereof) at the center. As you can probably guess, the crust was perfect. In addition to it’s perfect texture – firm, but chewy – the crust was infused with the smoke flavor from the wood burning oven.

So do I agree with Levine that this is the best pizza in country? It’s been four days and I’m still not sure. Lou Malnati’s makes as good a deep dish pizza as I think exists, but I can’t say that it’s a better pizza than Pizzeria Bianco. It’s actually hard to compare two styles that are so different. What I do know is that I will never visit Phoenix without going to Pizzeria Bianco. Only next time, I will make sure to have a group of at least six and I’ll call months ahead.


About 3 1/2 hours in; enjoying Mexican Coke...


The Caprese Salad...


The Biancoverde with Fresh Mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rocotta, Arugula


Margherita with Roasted Crimini Mushrooms and Fennel Sausage


The Sonny Boy with Tomato Sauce, Fresh Mozzarella, Salami, and Gaeta Olives


The Wiseguy with Wood Roasted Onion, House Smoked Mozzarella and Fennel Sausage


Efficient eating...Sonny Boy meets Wiseguy in Dan's mouth...


Behold... the Oven!


Where it went down...

3 comments:

  1. I have used every opportunity I have had to praise Pizzeria Bianco since visiting last year.
    I worked in the restaurant industry for years. Most notable being the Inn at Little Washington.
    And have been to many fabulous restaurant's from Jean George to the French Laundry. But nothing left such a inspiring impression as Pizzeria Bianco. There is not a better example of great food bringing people together and Chris Bianco has mastered it.

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  2. nice work!

    how western-organic-friendly sounding it all is. fucking hippies.

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  3. Wonderful report. My patience wears thin at the two-hour mark, but my wife and I were recently lucky enough to get in after a 75-minute wait late on a Tuesday night. By the way, I appreciate the absence of regional pizza chauvinism in your report. So many times here in Phoenix I hear from Chicagoans who say that deep-dish is the only acceptable pizza or from New Yorkers who believe that every pizza must be thin, greasy, foldable, and sold by the slice. Your openmindedness makes for a great review.

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