Chris Bianco began his pizza career at the ripe age of 13 at a slice joint in Westchester County. The future James Beard Award-winning chef remembers lugging bags of flour up the stairs, grinding mozzarella, and selling cold soda to customers. Eventually, Bianco left New York to find a different perspective and landed in a rather unlikely place for a pizza obsessive: Phoenix, Arizona.
“There was something about the sun and the desert that I found intoxicating.” (He also jokes that he ran out of gas before getting to California).
Bianco set up his Pheonix shop in the back of a neighborhood grocery store in 1988. In the two-and-a-half decades the pizzeria has existed, it’s been called the “best in America”—and even the world—by everyone from Bon Appétit, to Vogue, to Rachael Ray. Mozza chef Nancy Silverton said eating a pie from Pizzeria Bianco was a “life-altering experience.”
To what does Bianco attribute to his success? He says that making pizza “takes a village,” and that “the answer is always ingredient driven. I’m maniacal about ingredients.” The chef argues that pizza—which is little more than flour and water with a bit of fermentation and hydration—allows people to be transparent in the most vulnerable way.
“Things seem so simple—and I guess a lot of what we do is. But simplicity becomes the ultimate transparency, and that ultimate transparency becomes the opportunity for either the greatest praise or the greatest criticism,” he says. This purity and honesty is what Bianco strives for, and what’s kept him creating that life-altering pizza for the past 26 years.
We spoke with the thoughtful pizzaiolo about everything from what makes a good pie, to the role of the New York dollar slice and the young guns doing great work in the pizza world.
On what makes a good pizza.
I want it to be well-balanced; and in terms of ingredients, I want them to be clear and easy to read, like good literature.
If I’m looking at a classic like the margherita, I want the tomatoes to be balanced, I want the cheese to be just enough, I want it to have a balanced salinity. Personally, I like the basil after [the pizza cooks in the oven] so it wilts. But if someone cooks the pizza with basil, that’s cool, too. That doesn’t make it better or worse, it’s just personal. I want crispy, but I want it to be pliant. I want it to be light but still well-structured. And I don’t ever want to challenge the diner too much in figuring it out. The thinking should come after you get up from the table.
On who is carrying the torch for great pizza-making.
Oh my god, there are so many. There are guys who have been doing it for a long time like Anthony Mangieri [of Una Pizza Napoletana] and Tony Gemignani of Tony’s in San Francisco. There’s pizzicletta here in Flagstaff, Arizona; also Pizza Antica and Del Popolo in San Francisco, Mozza in L.A., Fortina in New York, and Cart-Driver in Denver. If I had to, I could list 100. You know, there are so many people are out there doing special things, and that’s powerful.
But it was never only about the pizza. Like, if you’re an asshole, I don’t want to come into your house. But if you’re cool people, buying from good farmers and other good people, and I love your beer and wine list, and I can park my car and you guys are always so gracious, and I love coming there—that’s what this is more about, for me. You know, it starts with gratitude and it ends with gratitude.
On whether the NY dollar slice is ruining the pizza landscape.
Everything in life has a time and place. I grew up on dollar slices, and I think that they served as great inspiration in my life. One of the first jobs I had was when I was 13, I worked in a little pizzeria in Westchester County called Aldo’s, and we served slices and cold Coca-Cola. My job after school was lugging bags of flour up the stairs and grinding the mozzarella.
I love the nostalgia of dollar slices. I have no judgment. Whether it’s food, or anyone’s religion, it probably started out with the best of intentions, and then man will always try to fuck it up and own it and twist it for his own personal gain. When you go back to the origins of it all, I think things started from a cheery place. We’re all looking for that today.
The dollar slice is a good thing, but it’s up to individuals where they take it. I guess it’s the whole karma and conscience thing.
Photo: Francisco Balagtas
On shifting pizza preferences.
I opened up in ‘88, and people’s expectations of pizza were different then. It was more about how big it was, how much extra cheese there was, how you pile on the pepperoni. Now, through social media—and even before that through cooking shows, and just observation and travel—people’s perspective has shifted. I can check Instagram and see what’s going on in Italy, or Provence, or Singapore. It’s had, for me, a very positive effect; you know, the more reference you have for good things, the better.
On which regions have the best pizza.
Throughout history, where was the best music made? Probably where they embrace it, where they practice it the most, and where people are exposed to the most diverse array of music.
My family moved to New York with a lot of other Italian immigrants at the turn of the century. One of the things that became part of that city was pizza, because of the density of Italian-Americans, because of what they demanded, because of their reference points and their ability to adapt to their environment. With food, reference is so important. If you don’t taste al dente, it’s only a word. But if you’ve been all throughout Italy, you understand al dente.
Regardless of specific cultures or countries, immigrants in general have a hunger; when you come somewhere you’re going to make it different and better than when you found it. If you have something you love or are proud of, you rally around that. Italians are so good at that. They had things that were special that they made for a long time—a food of not great wealth that was very welcoming and inclusive—and they nurtured it.
I’ve been fortunate to experience incredible bread and pizza all over the world—in Italy, France, California, the U.K., the Southeastern U.S. What bakers do is, they say: I’m going to understand the varietal of the wheat flour I have to bake with. Let’s say you’re trying to make the style of pizza you grew up with in New York, and it was made with this strong 13-14% bread flour. Then you move to California in ’60s, and there’s all-purpose flour or pastry flour, and you’re trying to make pizza. Bakers adapt to conditions, they adapt to cooking medians; you marry what you’re trying to make with what you have.
When we watch Anthony Bourdain go around the world, we learn that there are good people and good food everywhere, and bad people and bad food everywhere. If you gravitate towards what’s good, and you just don’t serve what’s bad, eventually the bad shit will go away. Don’t waste time with ignorant people or bad food.
On choosing between Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, or Domino’s.
They’re all pretty much the same, right? If they’re all lined up, I would have to look at the ingredients before I made a decision. But if you had Pizza Hut or Domino’s or Papa John’s at your house, I wouldn’t say no—but hopefully I’d have more options. I was always blessed to have good pizza around me.
On the significance of a pizzeria being deemed “the best.”
With pizza, like barbecue, there’s a lot of experts and everyone has their own favorite. “The best” anything can be anything you like best, and it’s that way with pizza. If you like Sicilian or deep-dish or true Neapolitan—or a hybrid, like what we do—more power to you. I think it’s important that you identify what you like. I never went out to make “the best this,” or “the best that.” For me, it was always ingredient-driven. I’m maniacal about ingredients. I’m not the master; this is an equal relationship. People try to say, “What I’m working on is Biblical and there’s no other fucking way to do anything”—and that’s the complete opposite of how I feel.
On his drive to make excellent pizza.
Is my product perfect? No way. Is it close to perfect? Never. But I know every day I strive for a perfection that exists. Both my parent are artists. I saw them struggle with judgement. In this case, I’m not making art. I’m making something utilitarian, and nurturing and nourishing—and if people find art in it, that’s awesome, but that wasn’t the intention. I’m not making something for a museum or even for your living room. I’m making something to become a part of you, and for it to become a part of you for the next day and the next day, hopefully. There’s a lot of stuff going on when you’re making pizza. It takes a village.