What da Vinci did for canvas, Chris Bianco is doing for pizza.
Discriminating, exacting, a perfectionist, the 41-year-old James Beard chef doesn’t settle for just any tomato, mozzarella or fennel sausage.
Bianco wants the best. It’s that quest that keeps cooking fresh for him — and delicious for customers who line up night after night for one of 11 tables at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.
"My goal has always been to get better," says Bianco, whose tousled boyish looks belie a philosophical chef. "I’ve sold quite a few pizzas over the years, but I am always finding better olive oil, better flour. I feel the best is still ahead."
Uncompromising standards have earned Bianco the highest regional recognition by his peers. In May, standing on a stage in New York’s Marriott Marquis, Bianco represented his adopted Southwest region in front of a hometown crowd at the James Beard Awards. Was he surprised when he heard his name called?
"Well I did rent a tuxedo," he says, smiling and winking.
This wasn’t the first time Bianco was recognized by the Beard folks. In previous years he has weathered the stringent elimination process to become a nominee for a culinary Oscar but fell short of a podium finish. Diners have also demonstrated their approval in recent years by naming him one of Gourmet magazine’s Top Readers’ Picks. While Bianco is appreciative of these, and other, accolades, he does not seek them out. Nor does he dwell on them. Rather, his attention is focused on what he knows — food.
"I’m going to call it like it is," said Robert McGrath, 2001 James Beard Best Chef Southwest and owner/chef of The Roaring Fork restaurants in and Austin, Texas, and Phoenix. "There are people out there wondering how someone can win an award with a pizza shop. The effort and the passion he (Bianco) puts forth is indicative of what the (James Beard) foundation is looking for. You want diversity, integrity and passion."
While some chefs may have more items on their menu, sometimes the quality isn’t always there. Not so with Bianco, McGrath said. "Chris does it 100 percent all of the time. He tries so hard to do everything perfect."
Mark Tarbell, a friend and admirer of Bianco’s, echoed McGrath’s sentiments. "It was overdue," said Tarbell, who has been named one of the "Chefs to Keep Your Eye On" by Esquire magazine for his Phoenix restaurants Tarbell’s and Barmouche. "I can’t say enough good about him. His restaurant is warm, comfortable, a rich environment. And his food is made with such integrity."
Something more people will get a chance to sample with the opening of Pane Bianco. Bianco is scheduled to open the bread/sandwich shop on Central Avenue in Phoenix this month. Pane Bianco is just up the street from his 7-year-old restaurant and down the street from where the then-25-year-old Bronx native threw his first dough in the Valley 16 years ago.
"It’s like I am halfway between where I was and where I am," Bianco said, speaking metaphorically and logistically. "This is just another addition. It’s like a conduit."
It was 1987 when Bianco first came to the Valley, making mozzarella in his apartment and selling it to local restaurants. His pizza break came that same year, when he rented space in the then-Euro Market at Central Avenue and Camelback Road in Phoenix. Installing a wood-burning oven, Bianco turned out pizza for the "no-time-to-cook" crowd.
When Euro Market sold, Bianco was off to Santa Fe, and then Italy. In 1993
he returned to the Valley and opened Pizzeria Bianco in the Town & Country Shopping Center. In 1997 he took the boards off the windows of a 1927 machine shop in Phoenix’s Heritage Square and moved pizza operations there.
A neighboring brick structure became Bianco’s waiting room/wine bar. He operates both with business partner Susan Pool and a cast of "smart people" that are as much family as they are employees.
"We’ve had to overcome a lot in terms of perceptions," Bianco says. Pizza, after all, is something delivered in a cardboard box to a person’s front door. But nods from chefs Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and the late
Jean-Louis Palladin of Palladin in New York City won over any snobby detractors.
"Pizza is what I do, that’s true," Bianco said, nodding. "But it is more than that."
It’s about connecting to people. Simplicity. Sincerity. Dedication.
"If I didn’t have to do this for money," Bianco says, brown eyes fixed, " I’d be doing the same thing."
Bianco’s pizza recipes may be secret, but his formula for success is not — "Work hard and don’t compromise," he says.
That he’s done it "his way" — and been successful — is the envy of fellow chef James McDevitt, a James Beard Rising Star nominee in 2001. McDevitt is the former owner of Restaurant Hapa and the current co-owner of Mika at The Borgata, both in Scottsdale.
"Everyone is jealous of what (Bianco) has accomplished. Including me," McDevitt said. "Every chef wishes they had a line out their door every day before they open, especially in the middle of the summer."
Bianco believes you can tell a person’s intentions by how they build something. Pizza, cars, tables and chairs — it doesn’t matter. If you plan to be around for a while, you’re going to do a good job. Bianco plans to be around for a while.
When: Open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays
Where: Historic Heritage Square 623 E. Adams St., Phoenix
Information: (602) 258-8300