Actually, passionate is an understatement – Chris Bianco is fanatically obsessed with pizza – and has been since his first after school job at 13, in a pizzeria near New York City. “It started as a way to score a few free slices, but pizza has always been omnipresent in my life,” says Bianco. His quest took him to Italy and California, where he fell under the spell of ingredient guru Alice Waters. “I learned that superior ingredients could be the star of the menu. If a recipe said salt and pepper, I started thinking about what kind of salt, and I was dumb enough to look at pizza the same way.” On cue, his basil farmer walks in and tosses a ridiculously fragrant bag on the counter.
At his Phoenix eatery, Pizzeria Bianco, he makes what many critics consider the nation’s finest pizza. He is the only pizza maker to win a James Beard Best Chef award, food’s equivalent of an Oscar, and he earned an unbelievable 29 on the Zagat Survey’s 30 point scale – higher than any restaurant in New York. But the real testament is the number of people who routinely wait 2 to 4 hours for a table. “I think of it like this: it takes 23 hours to get to Australia, and I’d like it to take 15 minutes, but it doesn’t. It’s part of the experience. You can get something to eat anywhere, but we are making a commitment to doing something special.”
His obsession is as famous as his cooking. He refuses to make pizzas to go because they should be eaten straight form the oven. He makes his own mozzarella cheese – every day. And unlike other celebrity chefs, he is actually cooking. “There’s no secret recipe. The secret, if there is one, is repetition. I’m here five nights a week and I still make every pizza. I’ve probably missed five nights in 15 years. I want to make your pizza. They are like snowflakes, never the same.”
Every night, customers ask Bianco how to make better pizza at home, and given his love for it, he is eager to help:
The Oven: “One of the first questions I get, like ten times a night, is how to make pizza without my oven. Well, some of the best pizzerias in the world don’t have wood fired ovens. Take a baking stone, preheat it for at least half an hour, maybe an hour, as high as it will go, 500 or 550. The trick is, right before you drop the pizza in, turn the broiler on, and it will approximate how a wood oven cooks. Watch it carefully and if the top is cooking too quickly, immediately turn it off. The broiler is like me throwing on another log.”
The Ingredients: Flour, salt, water and yeast. “If you use a mixer, use all-purpose flour, or for a traditional Neapolitan crust, Italian-style double zero, but by hand I would use bread flour.” He uses organic, high gluten flour at the restaurant but warns that organic can be less consistent. Many dough recipes call for olive oil, but Bianco omits it. “I never got that. If oil and water don’t mix, why put it in pizza?” He swears by sea salt, a fine enough grind so it distributes.
The Dough: “Never use a rolling pin. Work quickly and handle the dough as little as possible.” Many recipes suggest cornmeal on the paddle or stone to prevent sticking. Not his. “Don’t use cornmeal, just a minimal dusting of whatever flour you made the pizza with.” Cornmeal changes the taste and texture and even the way the dough cooks. “Taste the crust with nothing on it. Is it too salty or salty enough? You want that to be the best part. It doesn’t have to be New York style or Neapolitan style, some people like it more like bread. The best pizza is the pizza you like best.”
Visit Pizzeria Bianco at 623 E. Adams Street, Phoenix or call 602-258-8300
–By Larry Olmstead