The Tao of Bianco

Chris Bianco doesn’t just make pizza—he relishes relationships, builds spaces, and crafts experiences.

May 1, 2014

Issue 6: May/June 2014Table
Chris Bianco's expansion to Tucson required a gestation period of nearly a year. "We're not creating a space just to flip it," he says. "We want to do a thing that is forever."

Chris Bianco’s expansion to Tucson required a gestation period of nearly a year. “We’re not creating a space just to flip it,” he says. “We want to do a thing that is forever.”

The best pizza in America is the best pizza in America, but it’s not the best pizza in America. Does that make sense?

Of course it does, or doesn’t. The maker of The Best Pizza in America could clear this up—but he’d rather not. He’d rather you just eat his pizza. Let me explain:

Chris Bianco, the chef and owner of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, has been called the best pizza chef in the United States (by the New York Times, by Bon Appétit). He’s been called “the godfather of American pizza” (by GQ) and an “acknowledged master of his discipline” (by Gourmet); he’s the only American pizza chef to win a James Beard Award.

But Bianco himself dislikes the labels, shrugs off superlatives, and seems allergic to accolades. Of his pizza, he’ll say, “I hope it’s never better than your mother’s or your favorite.” Regarding his plaudits, he’ll reply, “We all get our 15 minutes of fame, and I think I’m overtime on mine.”

And yet, he works maniacally to make the best pizza possible—he still rises at 7 a.m. and works until midnight; still shops for ingredients at the local farmers’ market, still makes his own mozzarella, still kneads the dough. “Oh,” he’ll tell you, “I need it.” He wants things precise—farmers have been known to hold rulers up to their arugula because Bianco prefers it to be a certain length (these farmers also happen to love him). The man is casually exacting. The best pizza in America is and isn’t the best pizza in America; is a koan; is a paradox; is a palindrome. A man. A plan. A pizza.

Read this sentence. During the time it took you to do so, Americans inhaled more than 350 slices of pizza. As you first glanced at the “R” in “Read”—well, a full pizza disappeared. Americans eat more than 2,500 pizzas every minute. We love it: Tick tick tick, chomp chomp chomp.

And yet, we generally think that eating pizza is unhealthy. We think of it as fast food—a more benign fast food than, say, burgers, but not by much; we’d never call it health food. But what if pizza were a health food? What if, when you ate pizza, you thought, “Well, at least that’s one good thing I did for my body today.”

Such is the promise of Bianco’s product: a pizza that might not only be good for you, but—composed entirely of local ingredients—might also be good for the place where you live?

But that promise requires staying close to home. “I don’t want an imitation or a cloned deal,” Bianco told the Arizona Republic in 2006. “The place is so small and cramped and I’m sweaty and it’s loud, but somewhere in the chaos of it all, you find a sense of place.” Bianco so loved that sense of place that during his first two decades, he had a hand in creating nearly every pizza at Pizzeria Bianco. Two-hundred and fifty pizzas a night, and Bianco’s digits danced over nearly every one, night in, night out—until he eventually acquiesced to excessive demand for his wares. He opened a sandwich shop in 2005. Then he opened a bar next to his original pizza place, to accommodate overflow; then he opened an alternate “Italian restaurant” locale in Phoenix.

But it wasn’t until just one year ago that Bianco agreed to create a new Pizzeria Bianco. This time, 150 miles southeast from the original. This time, in Tucson.

“Is this a chain?” an old woman asked.

She was asking the bartender this at the original Pizzeria Bianco—an innocent question; she’d simply enjoyed a great meal and wondered if she could have a similar experience closer to her house—and she had no way of knowing that Chris Bianco himself sat a few stools away.

I was interviewing him—or had been interviewing him—but once he’d heard her question, he couldn’t concentrate on anything else. “Is this a chain?” he asked himself. “Well, we’re not the dog on a f–king leash, I can tell you that. We’re just a link in the chain. Hopefully a good link.”

How does one become the best pizza chef in America? Let us zoom backward, as if this were a comic book, to see his “origin story.”

First panel: Rowdy, hardscrabble kids goof around in a back alley in New York—perhaps they play street ball. Next panel, say a third floor window: a saddened child looks down, wishing he could play, too—but he can’t; he has asthma. Last panel: Young Chris is slumped in the corner, turned away from the window, knowing he can’t go outside—but, curiously, he doesn’t look sad. His eyes are somehow bright—he’s watching the magic happening at the stove; he’s reading his aunt’s Gourmet magazines.

Next page of the comic book: TEN YEARS LATER! We see a young man-boy Bianco leaving the little shop in the Bronx, Mike’s Deli, where he learned to make the magnificent mozzarella that would be a key weapon in his utility belt.

Bianco drops out of high school, but finds salvation in restaurant work. “I started to cook,” he told me, “because I felt incredibly insecure. I needed to know, we need to know, that it’s all right. That’s why we cook, why we break bread, why we offer someone a pint. To feel it’s all right.”

For Chris Bianco, every object has a story, down to the oversized clock that will keep the time at his new pizzeria.

For Chris Bianco, every object has a story, down to the oversized clock that will keep the time at his new pizzeria.

And then, Bianco’s big ticket out was an actual ticket. Bianco won a plane ticket to anywhere in America, and so he chose … Phoenix? He still can’t say why, but apparently his instinct was well founded. “When I got here, I felt connected.”

To finish up this history, a rapid montage: See Bianco making mozzarella in his little Phoenix apartment, then selling it at the back door of various Italian restaurants. See Bianco being offered a small corner at a local grocery—a little corner with a wood-burning stove where he could try to make some pizza. See the pizza sell extremely well. See a thought balloon form above Bianco’s head: “I could open my own pizza shop.” See Bianco work for a few years as a sous chef. See Bianco travel through Italy, sharpening his skills. See Bianco return to Phoenix.

See him open Pizzeria Bianco.

Bianco made such good pizza that after just four years there were lines around the block on Saturday nights. You can still find these lines. The original Pizzeria Bianco hasn’t expanded from its original small space, and it doesn’t take reservations.

But Bianco is still focused on the present, and on the future. If you want to talk about his past, he’ll want to talk about his new restaurant. “It just felt right,” he said. “I mean, maybe it’s that I’m getting older. I think I start to think about what I want to leave behind.”

Right or not, he said that expansion had been “the last thing I wanted to do. [But] it’s like with a puppy or a significant other,” he said. “When you’re looking? Very hard to find. But if you’re not looking …”
When you’re not looking, you find the perfect space in downtown Tucson. “Tucson has always been a place of respite for me,” he said. “An incredible concentration of all the things I love, in art, architecture, music—it’s a place that’s always inspired me. And there’s a movement here now, with food—is ‘movement’ the right word? You tell me, is it a movement? Yeah. Cool. I think so, too.”

It’s notoriously difficult to pin down a time to talk to Chris Bianco, given that, in spite of his expansion, he still works lunch shifts at the original Pizzeria Bianco. But then again, he’s a busy man, all around. “I’m having a child,” he said. Then clarified, “I mean, my wife is having a child. Soon.” As I walked into the semiconstructed space of his new restaurant in Tucson, I couldn’t help but hear the words of my brother-in-law, himself a recent first-time parent: “During the pregnancy, your wife spends all this time with the child, she does all the hard stuff,” he said, “but I didn’t know what to do with my nervous energy. So I just built the nursery.”

Though Bianco and his group have owned the new space for over a year, the opening date keeps being pushed back. “I hear what people are saying, ‘When will it open? When will it open?’ But it’s like with a baby. There’s the day of conception, and then the due date [and] there’s some time between,” he said. “But I guess the good news is that with the baby and the restaurant, I’m in it for the long haul. We’re not creating a space just to flip it. We want to do a thing that is forever.”

Bianco showed me the small wall in the new restaurant where he’ll display paintings made by his father, a lifelong painter. “He’s 86,” Bianco said, “but he’s still painting!” And so, one wall of the restaurant will display the man’s work. “My friend, Bill Steen, has this photo of Churro lambs. Out in the desert. My father loved that photo. So he’s painting it. How cool is that? Say we roast a Churro lamb. And serve it on pizza, here? Say people can have a pizza with meat served from the lamb they see painted on the wall? Full circle,” he said. More full circling: Bill Steen took the images that accompany this piece; his son built one of the large tables that diners will soon sit at—a beautiful table, with weird whorls overlaying various veils and veldts of varnish, layers beneath layers.

“Some of the things we revere, the deeper we dig, we find compromise. In origin and intention,” Bianco said. “But sometimes we can create things where the deeper you dig, the better it gets.”

For Bianco, creating a resturaunt requires more than simply buying equipment and getting into operation. What's important, he says, are the people wo contributed to it coming together: from left, Oso Steen, Gary Paul nabhan, and Dos Cabezeas' Kelly and Todd Bosotck, with their son.

For Bianco, creating a resturaunt requires more than simply buying equipment and getting into operation. What’s important, he says, are the people wo contributed to it coming together: from left, Oso Steen, Gary Paul nabhan, and Dos Cabezeas’ Kelly and Todd Bosotck, with their son.

Then there’s the antique Coke sign Bianco plans to mount in the restaurant. Bianco is all about the local, the individual—about the singularly produced. But he likes the Coke sign. Yes, Pizzeria Bianco will be serving glass-bottle Mexican Coke. But mostly, the sign belongs in the space because Bianco loves its worn surface. The patina. “We say words like ‘patina’ or ‘time-worn,’” he said. “But all that means is journey. All these objects have gone on a journey. They show their scars. Maybe it’s just me getting old, but I like things that show their scars. Especially as a chef,” and he looked at his forearms, where every chef worth his salt bears burns. “The scars are what matter … You learned because you didn’t listen.”

In the middle of the room: A big concrete box, made of bricks, elevated off the ground. “And that …?” I said; “That’s the epicenter,” he replied. He walked over to the newly installed wood-burning pizza oven. He looked at it. He started to say something, then stopped. He fingered a weird corner of the metal—then walked away.

He looked back at it and said, as if in a comic book, a dramatically sparse statement for a man so loquacious: “The fire.”

So, is the pizza really that good? is the question you’re asked when writing about “the best pizza in America.” Hidden implication: Come on, it can’t be that good.

We all, generally, like pizza. So what could the “best pizza” even be like? The phrase carries with it an absurd level of expectation. One expects, at the very least, that one’s jaw will be literally blown from one’s cranium, since one’s taste buds have just exploded.

But when I ate the pizza, it was simply delicious. The first time I tried it, I was on vacation in Phoenix. It was one great part of one great night. The pizza was great. I loved it. But it was just part of the night.

“I hope you’re never here to judge,” Bianco said, “just to enjoy.” He wants the full experience to be enjoyable at Pizzeria Bianco. “Food itself never mattered to me. It’s all the stuff that goes into it, everything—and everyone—around it. I want you to have an experience.”

Bianco’s menu in Phoenix—“It’ll be the same thing in Tucson, with maybe a funky local thing or two”—is just one page: one starter; a salad or two; and then six pizzas, all of them pretty simple.

For Bianco, it all starts with his sourcing, and he’s been advocating for local ingredients before the portmanteau “locavore” was ever portmanteauxed. “The biggest thing I had to learn,” he said, “growing up when I did? Not everything that tastes good is good for you.” That seems obvious to us now, but way back whenever Bianco wanted to create something that was both. Bianco wants his food to be good for you, but “that said, none of that f–king matters if the food doesn’t taste f–king delicious.” He adds: “Health food stores would have sold a lot more if they didn’t call themselves ‘Health Food Store’ —instead just called themselves ‘Good Restaurant.’

“All that said, I hope if someone walks in here and doesn’t know s–t about s–t, just wants pizza … he gets it. He eats it and thinks, f–k … and it makes him dig deeper.”

F–k, yes.

Almost 30 years ago, right before opening the first Pizzeria Bianco, Bianco was in New York and spied a very old Italian restaurant that was going out of business.

“I was looking for stuff for my bar, so I poked my head in,” he said. He tracked down the remaining owner—a widow who was eager to retire. “I had to tell her, ‘No, no, no, I’m not crazy, I’m just starting a restaurant. I want to know if you’re selling anything.’”

“I have one thing,” she said, “but it’s too expensive.” When he asked to see it anyway, she took him into her garage and revealed a beautiful old oak bar. The bar had upheld the elbows of her restaurant patrons since the 1920s—but it was older than that: The widow and her husband had originally purchased it from a New York grocery that had been in business since the 1880s. “It had marks from cigars,” Bianco said, from “guys back then.”

Bianco rested his palm very briefly on the bar where he sat while telling me this story, in the original Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, and I realized we were sitting at the widow’s bar. The cigar stain near my own elbow was 150 years old.

“She took pity on me,” he said, and sold it to him at the only price he could pay. But I’m not sure it was pity. I think it was that he valued her bar about as much as he valued her (and she could tell this); which is to say, he valued her and her bar very, very highly. She parted with these remnants of her bar, saying, “I hope it brings you good luck.”

Bianco loves things—but in the most nonmaterialistic way. Bianco loves things, objects, but loves them merely as tangible representations of moments, people—tangible totems of moments spent with people. Indeed, Bianco loves things that he senses were created by people. People he likes. I think this is what he means when he repeatedly uses the word “authentic.”

What it takes to create a restaurant is more than buying equipment and serving food. Of greater importance are the people that contribute, said Bianco. The restaurant is built on relationships.

And this is why Chris Bianco could never create a “chain”—at least not in the modern, American sense. He cares far too much about people. About things. About things as representations of all the people he loves.

Each an individual.

A man, a plan, a pizza. ✜

Pizzeria Bianco. 272 E. Congress St.

Dave Mondy is a freelance writer/imbiber, as well as a college instructor.

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