with Chris Bianco
Or, The Music of Pizza
If you're a devotee of pizza blogs and sites, we don't have to tell you
how great Pizzeria
in Phoenix is, or why it's worth waiting hours for
the pizza there, or what an interesting guy Chris
Bianco, the owner and pizzaiolo, is. But we're telling you.
If you don't know about Pizzeria
Bianco, here's the short story: Pizzeria Bianco was
opened in 1994 by Bronx-born Chris Bianco, who made every single
pizza there for fifteen years. People wait up to three hours in line for a table, because
Chris doesn't do take-out; he wants you to sit down and taste it out of
the oven. Those who know about such things have proclaimed Pizzeria
Bianco the best pizza in the U.S., possibly the world. We
And knowing this, we still didn't expect the intensity or the sincerity
of the spirit that is Chris Bianco.
We were on our way cross-country in our motorhome. It wasn't exactly a
pizza tour - we'd only had pizza once between New York and Phoenix (a
forgettable experience in Oklahoma City), but Bianco was a
must-visit. We'd been hearing and reading about it for a long time, and
hadn't been there yet.
We called ahead and asked Chris for an interview - something we might
never have been brave enough to do without Peter Reinhart's
encouragement - and he was very friendly and gracious. We
knew the pizza was going to be good, and we wondered about the man who
makes the pies. We'd heard Chris Bianco in an NPR
radio interview, read about him, and knew he was from the
Bronx and had some
fascinating ideas about pizza and life, but frankly, never thought
he'd have the time to talk with us.
Parking a car in downtown Phoenix isn't difficult. Parking a 25-foot
long, 11-foot high motor home is another story. Lillian took
one for the team and searched for parking while Cary sat down with
Chris before the pizzeria opened for the evening.
probably know that there's a whole mystique that's built up
Chris Bianco: I don't know much about that. I try to keep my head down, you know.
I've just been around a long time. I opened up my first place
(in Phoenix) in '88.
made you come to Phoenix?
Chris Bianco: I think it was a lifestyle choice. I didn't know anybody
west of Connecticut, and I just kept going till I found a place where I
felt comfortable, and this was it.
P4P: And why
pizza? You've said that it's not about passion for pizza,
it's about passion.
Chris Bianco: I think there's a whole movement right now which kinda troubles me;
this whole separation of "I love this, I love that, I'm passionate for
pizza, passionate for this or that." For me, you know, I was
the Bronx. Pizza was part of my neighborhood, my culture, being
Italian-American. You know, it might be barbecue for someone else,
whatever they gravitate towards. For me it was more of an
expression. Through that - pizza, or whatever our work is - it becomes
metaphorical to the process, it connects us to things that actually
matter. It connects us to human beings, humanity. In my case,
it connects us to farmers and artisans, people, families. These bags of
flour, these things we turn into circles, there's a human element and a
gift to it. We start to look at it, turn it upside down,
check the upskirt, the downskirt, all this kind of crap, it's really
disturbing. I'm disturbed by this movement. It's really
dissecting something which -- there's no magic to it, it's
just a process; you want to be a violin player, play the
violin, listen to music, develop it, see what music you like.
We want this fast-track, Cliff Notes type of mentality.
We see a house, we've gotta own it. We go to visit a place,
we've gotta move there.
Sometimes I disappoint people because, well, obviously I love what I do
but I don't love it more than anything else, not more than my
relationships, my family.
Compared to like, at DiFara's in Brooklyn. Dom DeMarco makes pizza
morning till night, now in his 70's he's cut back to five days a week...
Chris Bianco: That's not me. I mean, I've made every pizza in this place for
fifteen years, but I've got a few issues I've been dealing with over
the years. I've had asthma since I was five years old, so
I've had a struggle with the flour for years. It's a harsh reality this
year, and I've had to kinda step back a little, get some help from my
guys. My brother works with me, my sister's been working with
me since I opened, and there's gonna have to be a time where you have
to - well, it is a young man's game in that way, I believe.
You talk about the Yankees, well, there's a time when Bobby
Murcer had to hang up his glove. Sometimes we push ourselves
past the point of relevance, where you say, how can we really affect
anything in a positive way? You know, there's a real
physicality to this business. There are guys that are banging
out 250, 300 pies and cooking with fire, and just dealing with the
struggle -- I mean it's no more struggle than anyone else's job, but
it's a pretty stressful environment. You're met with a lot of
expectations, and I'm here hopefully to deliver.
Everyone's been very kind to us, waiting and putting
up with things. People say, 'is it worth the wait, is it worth it?' I
don't know, I don't know what's worth something that long.
I've done something consistently for a long time, and you sit
down and eat it, I hope when you get there it's of worth. And when
people say, 'ahh, it's not worth it,' I used to struggle so much with
that. I'm still affected by what people think. I care what you think.
I'm not one of these peole that says, I don't care what anybody thinks
- I care what everyone thinks. And everyone's opinion, I take
eager to taste your pizza.
Chris Bianco: It's an expression. You know, my brother makes the dough by hand,
we don't use a machine. Three fifty-pound batches a day, we make our
bread in the morning - we closed for lunch here because it really
compromised the process.
always say that, for me, it's more of a human study than a restaurant.
It's afforded me to watch and listen to a lot of things and meet a lot
of really interesting people, to exchange ideas and be inspired and
hopefully, in some cases by accident, inspire people to do their own
thing, to do something that they enjoy, and take what they want from it.
I was always intimidated about making pizza. Growing up in Brooklyn
I've seen a lot of pizza being made and I always thought, 'I can't do
that', and my wife and I have really just started making pizza. The
initial stuff, making the dough and putting on the cheese and tomatoes,
it seems like it doesn't take long to learn but I guess it takes a
lifetime to master.
Chris Bianco: You never
master it, I don't care how many lifetimes, and that's the beauty of
it. You see, that's the slippery slope, where people say
this' - there's no master; you're in a relationship with something.
That's what's really beautiful about it, it's always bigger than you.
It needs you, you need it. There's no difference in any relationship.
There's no mastering of it - you engage.
You engage with it on a daily level. Take pizza, we
our objective, our intention, our medium. Our cooking medium, what
we're able to work with: flour, water, condition, time, audience and
what their expectations are, and what's our intention - and really
being clear with that intention - and serving that intention and
staying focused on it. It's very similar to music or sports in that
way, where you stay focused on your mission and know that you might get
better at something, but the minute you believe you've mastered it,
it'll show you who's boss. I've had a beautiful relationship
flour, water, yeast, salt and the human experience.
Chris Bianco - a man and his oven
sharing this too - like Peter (Reinhart) and I, we've gotten to share a
lot of time, and Brian Spangler (Apizza
Scholls, Portland, OR), and other people that are great
in this business, very passionate people, like Jim Lahey (Co., NYC),
guy, a great baker who's doing pizza now, and everyone's got their own
take and opinion, and yours matters and is just as relevant as mine,
and that's what makes it beautiful.
I'm not one who thinks so
much that people have to pay their dues - you might make a pizza the
first day that might be the best thing in the world, that can happen.
Now, repetition and keeping it together and doing it 300
well there are a lot of elements to it.
Some days I get tired,
physically, sometimes emotionally tired too (chuckles), but it's given
me a lot. Hopefully, people can take something from this and do
something good with it, to go back home and be inspired by it, to share
it, it's a process. I don't care if it's exercise, or yoga,
running, or music. It's a beginning, a middle and an end, an
organization of harnessing, notes if your a musician, and all of a
sudden the notes turn into something and there's a
it, there's a sound and you enjoy it and this is very similar.
can be a great common denominator. Making a pizza for someone is a
great shared experience, like someone you went to high school with, or
being stuck in an elevator with someone, making a pizza with someone is
essentially a lot like that, you've gone through something.
when you eat it, there's a deep appreciation for the process.
I think as Americans, we're so removed from the process; the
process of laying down an animal to have a cheeseburger, or where
things come from, we're disconnected from the reality of it.
appreciate your asking me questions. I'm not here to preach and I hope
I don't come off like that. I'm just sharing what I've seen from this
perch, and it's one of gratitude. I used to be the rebel who didn't
listen, and opened up in a crazy place, and won't do take-out, and it
was always for no intention other than to do something really special.
And I hope it is, uncompromised. I mean, this isn't rocket
science, I'm not curing cancer. I'm doing something that hopefully can
sustain people, to do something that's actually important and look at
life and the simplest pleasure of it and take it for what it is and
maybe not be so maniacal about it and just enjoy the expression of it.
I mean, you can have a great pizza here and then go to
or go to Totonno's or whatever your place is and submit to it.
That's what I try to do when I eat out - I just want to
it, to see the chef's intention and not be quick to compare but just
There was no other reason coming out here other than
to get away from -- in New York you know as well as I do that there's
so much competition, competition for a parking space, everything.
And it's not always fair - I've told this story a million
when I was a kid folding boxes that said, 'You've Tried The Rest, Now
Try The Best', and I didn't understand that because they were using the
same crappy ingredients that everybody else was. So there's propaganda
that we buy that something's the best without a basis to it. 'Don't ask
any questions, it's the best.' And then I got older and started
traveling and meeting people like Alice Waters, 25 years ago meeting
organic farmers and using indigenous ingredients and saying, 'wow, this
is just Navajo frybread but it's got great texture and integrity and
craft,' and seeing that there's something beyond the five boroughs.
I'm so grateful being from there but it's really made me
appreciate the whole world and made me more of a universal citizen than
a New Yorker. I think I have a greater appreciation and respect for all
especially their food expressions.
P4P: As a
novice pizzamaker, any words of advice or something I should keep in
Chris Bianco: I do. I have a couple of bits of advice for you:
You always know more than you think you do, and trust your
Jim Lahey and I had a good talk about this. Now Jim is probably the
most knowledgeable baker, Peter (Reinhart) is great too, they're both
great, but Jim is -- I don't use the word genius that much, but the guy
is a genius. His knowledge of baking is unprecedented, I believe. And I
have a completely different philosophy than him. Like, I
don't want to say 'I don't wanna know,' but the cooking that
I do is very responsive
- I respond to something and then I figure it out afterwards. Jim does
due diligence first, he wants to know exact hydration, numbers,
P4P: When we
make dough, my wife Lillian always tells me I have to learn
how to feel when it's ready --
Chris Bianco: I think from that point, you have to start to watch things, you
have to do things -- I don't want to say 'wrong' -- at the beginning,
it's really understanding the process and then recording in your book
what you did and what happened in that result and then see if there is
consistency in that.
book is fantastic,
and all of Peter's books are great, There are
great books on baking, but I think baking, ultimately it's -- you watch
these guys in Europe, they stand there with a cigarette and when the
ashes hit the ground it's time to proof out the dough, or -- there's a
cadence to it, a very organic cadence to it. It's not that they're
ignorant by any means, it's that they're responding to something
instinctual versus scientific. I think there's real relevance to every
method, there's no wrong or right.
In The Bronx, there's a great deli called Mike's Deli, run by David
Greco, Mike's son. Mike was a legendary mozzarella maker. Our
neighborhood deli of choice. They taught me to make mozzarella there, I
used to help out and they were very kind to me. Once we were kneading
out curds and I said, "David, how do we know when it's ready?"
And he said, "when it smiles." And somehow, in your
hands, in the hot water, and back and forth, and watching the sheen of
it, and getting the feel of it, you understand what that meant.
Now, that would never translate if you wrote that down in a recipe.
But being in it and watching it -- like with some guys I've
worked with from other countries, when you have a language
barrier, they're some of the greatest learners because of the
instinctual gear that takes over. They're not learning from a recipe
book, they're watching and learning. It's a very natural way to cook.
UNLESS you're someone who loves numbers. Me, I was never a
grade-A student. I was always kinda intimidated by all the thinking.
So trust your instincts, develop your palate. With pizza for instance,
if you've tasted most of the ones that you've deemed as 'standards',
then you choose, through your taste profile and your selection, which
ones speak to you.
Like Nancy Silverton's (Pizzeria
Mozza in L.A.) has more of a breadlike quality, which I
love - I think it's fantastic - she's a great baker, it makes sense. We
talked about that before she opened. Maybe it's not traditionally
Neapolitan, but it has great integrity. It's a great product and it's
Pizza is no different than any dish. Less is not more. Sometimes too
much is still not enough. It's about finding that balance - finding
things in balance.
So, record the process, work through your own taste buds.
That's our reference for good. If you get a guy from Korea to
review your breakfast place and you don't have kimchi, it has nothing
to do with good or bad, its reference and expectation. And I think when
we're clear with our reference, with our intention, it's easier to
which is your
pizza, what would you order from yourself?
Chris Bianco: You know what? The Rosa and the Marinara are my two favorites. They
couldn't be more different, but somehow they're very similar. They both
demand your attention and they're both deceivingly complex but very
simple. And they're the two I eat the most!
So we'd heard the hype. We'd been bowled over by Chris the man.
Now it was time to taste his expression, the result of his
process, what so many have raved about.
We had the Rosa and the
Marinara, and Chris was, of course, correct. These were some
powerful pizzas - powerful in their simplicity, grace and, it's hard to
use this word, perfection.
The crust. It's beyond bread.
We can go on and on about hole structure (which is there) and
that perfect quality of char and soft and chew and the puffiness of the
cornicione ... but it's just words. Okay, it's just pizza crust, but
it's the best pizza crust.
Marinara is tomato sauce, oregano and garlic. No cheese. The sauce is
not as sweet as we're used to, but it has a brightness and a savory
something that simply matches and pairs with the bread, and joins
impeccably with the paper-thin slices of garlic and just enough
oregano. It didn't need any cheese. At all. And just when we
thought we'd tasted pizza paradise,
Rosa. The pie Chris Bianco has called 'the metaphor of me.'
An unbelieveable combination of red onion, parmigiano-reggiano,
rosemary, and Arizona Pistachios. Pistachios? On a pizza? It
works. It works fantastically.
We don't know if it's the best
pizza we've ever had, and listening to Mr. Bianco, we're convinced that
it doesn't matter. But we will be thinking of it for a long, long
Good gracious, this was some memorable pizza.
Pizzeria Bianco, 623 E Adams St., Phoenix, AZ 602-258-8300
from Twenty Minutes with
Chris Bianco to
the Pizza Adventures
Return to the passion-4-pizza