Like a martial arts student visiting the Shaolin Temple, my friend Brandon Pettit went to the mountaintop to gain wisdom from an acknowledged master of his discipline. The discipline is pizza, the mountaintop is Phoenix, Arizona, and the master is Chris Bianco, chef-owner of Pizzeria Bianco. Brandon asked a question: What keeps Bianco coming back to make the same six pizzas day after day?
“You’re the motherfucker in front,” said Bianco, “controlling the fuckin’ elements, putting the shit in and out of the oven.”
Brandon and I nodded our heads slowly at this zenlike pronouncement.
Brandon is opening his own pizza place, Delancey, next month in Seattle. For research, he visited the most vaunted pizzerias in America. He hit Di Fara in Brooklyn, Mozza in L.A., Apizza Scholls in Portland, OR. When he mentioned that his last stop would be Pizzeria Bianco, which I’d heard of but never been to, I invited myself along. “You could order more pizza that way,” I explained.
Brandon agreed. We arrived in Phoenix mid-afternoon and headed straight over to Pizzeria Bianco, which is in a plaza next to the science and history museums. Bianco doesn’t take reservations, so there’s a cadre of faithful waiting out front every day. On this evening it was a nice cross-section of humanity, including one of those guys who’s so ripped he can’t put his arms down. Everybody waited patiently for two hours. At no point did the bodybuilder yell “PIZZA!” and punch in the door of Pizzeria Bianco, no matter how much I wanted him to.
We made the first seating at 5 P.M. and took seats at the bar with a good view of the oven. Bianco’s oven isn’t some artsy-looking thing with glazed Italian terra cotta tile. It’s an unromantic industrial brick oven. Bianco came out and flashed a modest smile, then immediately got to work stretching and topping pies. When he put the first pizza in the oven, Brandon measured the cooking time with his watch and jotted it down.
Before allowing me to dig into our first pie, Brandon pulled out a tape measure and took down the pizza’s diameter. No one blinked at these acts of industrial espionage. When you run a cult pizza place, you get used to all kinds of weird behavior.
How was the pizza? The crust was impeccable: charred, full of flavor, perfectly salted and fermented. We had some quibbles about the toppings—the sauce was surprisingly bland, and the Wiseguy pie (smoked mozzarella, onions, sausage) was too loaded down with toppings—but we had to quibble about something. (“I could have made that free throw.”) The classic margherita, we agreed, was the best pie.
“Was that the best pizza you’ve ever had?” asked Brandon.
“I think so,” I said.
In the morning we eyed the pizza boxes on the table in our motel room. Dare we? We dared. It was still pretty good. Way better than complimentary continental breakfast.
Later we bought lunch at Pane Bianco, Chris Bianco’s bakery and sandwich shop, where he sat down with us at the picnic table out front.
While I ate my roast pork sandwich with escarole, Brandon and Bianco talked about oven design and dough fermentation. Some of this made my eyes glaze over like glazed Italian terra cotta, but it’s not often you get to hear a master hold forth on his craft. Bianco’s preferred dough fermentation time is 18 hours. You can make great pizza in any oven, he said—wood, coal, or gas, as long as it’s hot enough. When I spoke to him later, he elaborated on this belief. “Don’t worry about eight hundred degrees, don’t worry about the bullshit of time, don’t worry about tripping out your fuckin’ home kitchen to reproduce something. Those things to me are not organic. I mean, if you have a hot sidewalk and a magnifying glass, you can make something.” He paused while I imagined how this would work. “Maybe not pizza- but something, if only the sundried tomato that goes on the pizza.”
On any topic you want to get into, Bianco dispenses profane folk wisdom like a vending machine.
On eating local: “People ask for clams on the pizza,” he said. “Show me some fuckin’ water in Phoenix and I’ll put fuckin’ clams on your pizza.”
On my hometown: “If I was in Seattle I’d be smokin’ fuckin’ salmon or something.” To put on the pizza or instead of making pizza, I wondered? Bianco eventually got there. “I never set out to love pizza. I don’t love pizza. I have no passion for pizza,” he declared. “I only love and I only have passion, so you fuckin’ fill in the blank, I love it.”
Bianco is so passionate, in fact, that every time I talk to him, I nod and laugh at his rants until at some point I realize that I have no idea what he’s talking about. He’s like a cross between George Carlin and Yoda. “I have a philosophical question…” I began at one point.
“I love the philosophical stuff. I could talk about this for about seven hours,” said Bianco, and then he began to do so without waiting to hear the question.
None of this is meant as a criticism. Bianco is generous with his time, doesn’t believe in trade secrets, and speaks plainly and directly about actual pizza techniques, although he doesn’t consider the topic very interesting. “I’ve never invented a fuckin’ thing in my life,” he said. There are no pizza masters and no “world’s best pizza,” according to Bianco, just your own personal expression, the pizza you bake on your own sidewalk with your own magnifying glass, or something. (After speaking with Bianco, it is very easy to start speaking like Bianco, Bronx accent and all.)
Bianco answered all of Brandon’s questions and sent us home with some free rice pudding, which the TSA confiscated at the airport.
Now, with Delancey about to open, Brandon reports that he did, in fact, find some of Bianco’s advice useful. “Eighteen hours fermentation time is perfect,” he told me. And he considered a gas oven but decided to go with wood on the basis that it looks really cool.
“Are you going to serve a clam pizza?” I asked.
“Yeah, mine will probably be like Franny’s in Brooklyn, out of the shell with chili flakes and parsley.”
“So you’re saying you’ll put fuckin’ clams on my pizza?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
Pizzeria Bianco 623 E Adams St, Phoenix (pizzeriabianco.com; 602-258-8300)
Delancey (opening June 2009) 1415 NW 70th St, Seattle (delanceyseattle.com)