Friday, October 9, 2009

Impressions: Pizzeria Bianco

623 E Adams St
Phoenix, AZ 85004
(602) 258-8300

It was the volleyball that did it.

Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco has, for several years now, basked in the ebullient exaltations of Oprah, Martha Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, and, far more importantly, pizza aficionados Ed Levine and Peter Reinhart. He is widely regarded as serving the best pizza in the U.S., and in the opinion of Mr. Levine, the best in the world. That's high praise.

I knew I had to get to Phoenix as soon as was humanly possible to see if these superlatives were being thrown down haphazardly or if maybe, just maybe, they were accurate. But a trip to Arizona to try a single restaurant? Insanity. I'm not made of money (not yet, anyway...)

Then, as fate would have it, a friend of mine and fellow pizza fanatic from Los Angeles scored a press pass to photograph the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) championships in Glendale, the city adjacent to Phoenix's western edge. This upped the stakes considerably: fly to Phoenix to eat great pizza and see a good friend? How could I pass this up?

The answer was, I couldn't, and I didn't. What follows is my Phoenix experience from the moment I touched down at the airport to receiving not the first, but the second check of the evening at Pizzeria Bianco.

The Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is an enigma of mind-numbing proportions. It is comprised of four disconnected terminals in the least-intuitive arrangement you can fathom. Unlike most airports, you can exit PHX from two directions, both the north and the south sides. Convenient? In theory, yes, but in actuality, no. Confusing? Absolutely. Read on.

Upon stepping off the plane into Terminal 4 at 2:55 in the afternoon, I knew I had several hours to kill before my friend arrived from Los Angeles at 9:00 that evening. Performing some quick calculations in my head, I toyed with the idea of hitting Bianco solo: Let's see here, it's 3 o'clock now...Bianco opens at 5pm...I can do this.

Lacking any transportation of my own, I immediately strolled over to the Information booth, at which sat a surly-looking elderly man who looked like he'd rather be absolutely anywhere else in the entire world than behind said booth, to inquire about bus services. After ascertaining which bus I would need to catch, I then received instructions to locate its stop at the terminal. Here are his directions, verbatim:

1. Turn left and follow the wall on your right past three or four baggage carousels.
2. About halfway across the room, make a 45-degree turn to your left toward the far corner.
3. Continue in that direction until you reach the elevators in the corner nook.
4. Ride the elevators to Level 2, then step out and make a right turn.
5. Watch the right wall (not the left, that's the north side!) for Door #22, about thirty paces, and go through those doors.
6. Outside, turn right and walk approximately 50 feet past the shuttle bus stop to the city bus stop.

There is no reason on God's green earth why catching the bus at an airport should be so convoluted, or why I should ever have to make a 45-degree turn anywhere. In every other airport I've flown into, the buses are waiting just outside the baggage claim area. That's where they always are, because that's where it makes sense for them to be.

But I digress. Eventually the bus showed up and I took it to the closest stop to Pizzeria Bianco, about a block away, and stepped out into 104-degrees sunshine so bright my hair immediately went five shades lighter. I kid, but this heat was nigh-unbearable. How could anyone live in these conditions? I wondered. I was out of the cool cradle of the air-conditioned bus for fifteen seconds and already I was starting to perspire from every pore on my body. Lovely.

Pressing on, I made the walk down 7th Street to Pizzeria Bianco, which itself is situated in a quaint little plaza called Heritage Square. The time was 3:30pm. There to my surprise I saw a man standing outside Bianco's, a soul who had actually braved the heat to be the first person in line. I took the #2 spot, leaned against one of the shaded wooden tables outside the restaurant, struck up a conversation with the man, and began the one-and-a-half-hour wait.

By 4 o'clock the line behind me had grown to thirty strong, and the neighboring Bar Bianco opened. I asked Jim (yes, I was on a first-name basis with the guy at the head of the line by now) to hold my place while I went to buy a cold pint of ale. I went through three pints by the time the restaurant opened, and by then the line was approaching 75 hungry patrons.

Fast-forward to the dining room. I'm sitting against one wall with the rest of Jim's family, who had graciously permitted me to join them for dinner. This allowed me the opportunity to try more than one pie on this visit, God bless them.

Craning my neck to see over the counter from our table, I was shocked to see that the man himself, Chris Bianco, was not present in the restaurant. This was quite astonishing to me because, well, much talk has been made of how Bianco makes every single pie himself. I had never heard of him taking a night off, have read no one else's report that he had not been present at their meal. I immediately got a bad feeling, but once the food arrived, all fears that his absence would aversely affect our dinner were thoroughly smashed.

We started with the house Anitpasto Plate ($12), a delicious platter piled with vegetables roasted in Bianco's wood-fired oven, soppressata, some cheese, and a few slices of Bianco's excellent homemade bread with olive oil. Everything on the plate was fantastic, particularly the sampling of eggplant parmesan. It was a good sign for what was to come, as we had also ordered four pizzas.

Let's begin with the Margherita ($11). It was, hands-down, the very best Margherita I have ever tasted. There are four reasons for this, but no more are needed: incredible crust, fantastic tomato sauce, creamy mozzarella, and flavorful basil. It's really that simple. Chris Bianco makes his own mozzarella, and it is superior to any I have yet had on a pizza. His red sauce is simple, bright, and salted just right, with just a hint of oregano. It is also superior to any sauce I have yet tasted. But I want to make special mention of the crust. It is clearly not an authentic Naples-style crust, but that's not what he's shooting for. It's light, airy, pliant, alternately puffy and flat, with charred (not burnt) air bubbles dotting the rim. It was very flavorful, just as the bread in the antipasto plate was, and slightly soft, a far cry from the more solid NY-style crust. All pizzaiolo should strive for crusts as perfect as Bianco's. If any fault whatsoever could be found on this Margherita, it's that Bianco's second-in-command (or whoever it was making the pies tonight) did not put enough basil on the pie after it was pulled from the oven. The way it was cut, one slice did not even have any basil on it, but I'm sure it was because Bianco himself wasn't at the helm.

Our second pizza was the Sonny Boy ($13), which includes the aforementioned tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, Gaeta olives, and large slices of salami. If the Margherita hadn't been so spot-on, this would have been my favorite pie of the night. It's quite salty, with a strong olive taste, so those with delicate palates may be turned off by it, but I found the flavors intense and pleasurable. The crust isn't quite strong enough to hold up to the mass of toppings on this pizza, so be prepared for folding.

The Biancoverde ($14) was the first of our two "white" pies. The Biancoverde eschews the red sauce for fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta, and arugula. Typically I do not find white pies as interesting as red sauce pies (as the ricotta usually overpowers everything else), but the Biancoverde manages to avoid this criticism by turning the conventions on their side. The peppery arugula leaves are considerably smaller than the ones offered in just about every other pizzeria, and while they bring immense flavor to this pizza, they don't overwhelm it. The mozz, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and ricotta work in perfect harmony with each other, with no one cheese overshadowing the other two. This is a great white pie, and not one I was expecting to like so much.

Finally, we have the Wiseguy ($14). This pie also lacks red sauce, opting instead to top the same great crust with mozzarella smoked in Bianco's wood-burning oven, wood-roasted onion, and fennel sausage. The smoked mozzarella is dynamite, bringing a new dimension to the already-magnificent cheese. Cut into long strips rather than crumbled, the fennel sausage was thick and had a great snap to it when bitten into. The onion was good, slightly sweet, but didn't have that same punch of flavor the rest of the ingredients on this pie had. All in all, this was probably my least favorite pie of the night, though "least favorite pie" may be misleading: it's still better than 99% of the pizzas available in the rest of the country. My companions and I all agreed it would benefit greatly from the addition of the red sauce.

Pizzeria Bianco offers no desserts, so once we were done with the pizza, we paid the bill and vacated our table for the next eager group, who by then had been waiting in line nearly two hours. I thanked Jim and his family for letting me dine with them, then caught the next bus back to the airport.

Once my friend Mark arrived and we had secured a rental car, he mentioned that he had not eaten anything for several hours and was famished. Pizzeria Bianco came up. It was fifteen minutes to ten o'clock. Could we make it in time? Mark was willing to find out.

Slamming the accelerator to the floor, Mark cruised down the freeway to the 7th Street exit, navigated around a series of Road Closure signs, and pulled up outside Bianco's with minutes to spare. While he drove off to find a parking space, I got out and secured our names on the waiting list. The hostess (who vaguely recognized me from that afternoon, but assumed I had eaten there previously on a different day) informed me the wait would be an hour-and-a-half to two hours; I was just grateful (and amazed) Pizzeria Bianco still took names right up until closing time.

The wait ended up being only about an hour, during which time Mark and I sat on a bench outside in the relatively cooler 90-degrees air, sipping on pints of cream ale. When we finally got into the restaurant, the last group served that night, Mark knew just what he wanted: a Margherita, a Sonny Boy, and a Wiseguy. I still wanted to try Bianco's Marinara and Rosa pies, but I was in no position to argue, having already eaten there once that same day. Mark loved the pizzas, particularly the Margherita, and informed me he could devour three of them by himself. Our waiter, overhearing him, gestured to a young man sitting at the bar, clearly a regular. "That kid's the record holder," he told us. "He's eaten five of them." On our way out, Mark stopped by the bar to challenge the lad to an eat-off the next time he was in town, and the kid gladly accepted, much to the amusement of our chuckling waiter.

So there you have it, my dual experience with Pizzeria Bianco. I am not a huge fan of the city of Phoenix, but I can say this: I will return to Pizzeria Bianco in the future, as many times as possible. My favorite single pizza may still the Hot Soppressata and Basil pie at Ken's, but overall, Chris Bianco is serving the very best pizza I have ever eaten. I cannot envision better pizza being made anywhere, but my quest shall continue regardless. If you call yourself a lover of pizza and have not sampled Chris Bianco's pies yet, they are absolutely worth a foodie trip to Phoenix, even if you have no other reason for being there. They're that good. No. They're that great.

Next time, though, I'll skip the volleyball.

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