- Author: Michele Laudig
- Category: Valley News
- Issue: Sep 2011
Although asthma took Chris Bianco away from his wood-burning oven, the pizza maestro still has plenty of irons in the fire, with plans for a new restaurant in London, a line of canned organic tomatoes and a local revival of crop grains.
In a quiet nook behind the kitchen of Pane Bianco in central Phoenix, sitting at a wide table brightened by a single sunflower in a Mexican Coke bottle, Chris Bianco reaches into a bowl of worn wooden alphabet
blocks, grabbing a couple to fiddle with as he talks about his award-winning Downtown Phoenix restaurant.
The chef doesn’t want to take all of the credit for Pizzeria Bianco’s success. There are many fingerprints on the plate, as he puts it.
“Making pizza was always a metaphor. It is a full circle,” he says. “Where does it begin, and where does it end? In the spring? In the fall?”
He speaks with gratitude about the farmers who grew the wheat, the tomatoes, the herbs. The people who made the soppressata, the cheeses and the cured olives. He praises his brother, Marco, who makes all the dough and bread, and his employees, some of whom have been with him for nearly 18 years. He’s just a player in the process.
While his pizza has gotten rave reviews in the national press for years, Bianco makes it clear that he never asked for the attention.
He grabs one of the colored pencils sprouting from an empty San Marzano tomato can. Rapidly sketching out bold lines and geometric shapes, he explains that the more he’s accomplished, the more he feels he has to prove. The competitive nature of the restaurant business – especially when it comes to pizza – strikes him as “destructive.”
“There’s always a place for great music and art and expression,” he says. “And you know what? The best pizza is the one you love best.”
The subject of being a media darling seems to agitate him, and he says he wishes he didn’t care what people write. When it comes to his fame, Bianco seems much more at ease sharing the spotlight with the people who’ve helped him along the way.
He’s even more comfortable – blissful, even – talking about pizza itself. It would seem that for Chris Bianco, the best pizza is the one he happens to be making. As he talks about the process, he puts down his pencil and tilts his head back slowly, making a wild shock of salt-and-pepper hair swoosh upward from his forehead. He closes his eyes, breathing deeply, practically smelling the aroma in his imagination. “When I’m in front of the oven, it’s mindless, but it’s mindful,” says the chef, whose pies earned him a James Beard Award in 2003.
“I love the mechanized cadence of the oven. I love to shape the dough,” he says, rocking backward slightly. “It’s a dance.”
His happy place was as a fixture at his famed pizzeria. He was always clad in a short-sleeved white baker’s shirt, his skin faintly dusted with flour. Sometimes he’d have a basketball game on a tiny TV set on the wall next to the mammoth wood-fired oven. He’d look up to greet guests on their way in or out, but he was always moving, always watching the fire, always making pizza.
The wait at the restaurant grew famously, unbearably long, and Bar Bianco, next door, was filled every night with customers who’d wait three hours or more for a table at the pizzeria. Things went on like this for years, seamlessly. The only pause in operations would be the summer hiatus when the entire staff went on vacation.
And then, in late 2009, things changed. No more pizza-making for Chris Bianco. The culinary world let out a collective gasp.
Doctors had been telling him for a dozen years that nights at the wood-fired oven were worsening his asthma, which he’s had since age 5. He’d also developed baker’s lung, an ailment brought on by prolonged exposure to the fine flour dust from his pies.
“Finally, I made the decision that I can’t keep going on this way,” Bianco says.
He’d been running at full speed for years. Even after getting an almost-perfect Zagat rating (29 out of 30), being named the best pizza in America by Slice of Heaven author Ed Levine, and basking in national accolades, Bianco had continued to work long hours.
He calls pizza-making a young man’s pursuit, and yet he kept pushing forward in his late 40s, pulling long shifts until his hands would creak. Perhaps he coped with fame by working even harder.
Eventually, though, he accepted that his physical body is a teacher unto itself. The lesson? “There’s something greater than I,” he says. “It was comforting making pizza every day, but it was selfish. I didn’t understand what my place was.”
What could’ve been the ironic end to a career as a celebrated pizzaiolo turned out to be the launch of Bianco 2.0, as the chef has discovered that he can use his influence well beyond the restaurant.
“I went from a world of 100 percent tactile to one that’s from the outside in. The reality is totally different, but my intention is the same – good intention,” Bianco says. “My role continues to evolve, like a basketball player who goes on to coach.”
In the nearly two years since he stopped making pizzas full time (he still pulls a few oven shifts, he admits), he’s shifted into overdrive with new projects, as if making up for lost time.
“He’s like my father – he’s always got five things going at once,” explains his older brother, Marco Bianco, 51, who is the only other family member involved. “When he does a project, he sees how it’s going to be from start to finish.”
Marco started working with his brother in 1997, foraging produce for the pizzeria. “There weren’t a lot of farmers’ markets back then,” he says. “People don’t know how good they have it.”
Nowadays, Marco acknowledges that his brother is finally freed up to express his ideas. “When you create your own thing, it’s hard to give it up. But he trained us, and now we carry the torch.”
Can those famous pizza-making skills be taught? Bianco himself admits, matter-of-factly, that they can. “After you really understand a relationship with fire,” he explains, “the physical part, you can teach.”
While Marco heads up dough-making (“the single most important thing we do,” notes Bianco), longtime employee Horacio Hernandez handles the oven and maintains impeccable standards.
And last year, Bianco recruited even more talent. He hired one of the city’s highest-profile chefs, Claudio Urciuoli, formerly of Prado, the upscale Italian restaurant at Paradise Valley’s Montelucia Resort & Spa. Urciuoli now manages the culinary side of operations. Bianco also took on a menu consulting gig at the Wigwam, the West Valley resort bought in 2009 by his friend and patron, former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, and two partners.
Although he’s not particularly interested in pursuing consulting work, he wanted to see if he could make a difference in an entirely different arena. What if a luxury resort could use local produce instead of getting everything from a corporate supplier?
“In some small way, could you affect the mentality of a place that’s open 24/7? Hotels don’t typically buy local, but I wanted to challenge their ideals.”
While Bianco has long sought out organic ingredients (some of which, like the California olive oil he carries at Pane Bianco, he’s branded under his own name), he’s also become more involved in their production.
Most recently, he’s teamed up with Rob DiNapoli (whose grandfather founded the California cannery Sun Garden Packing Company in 1939), to sell a line of canned organic tomatoes called Bianco DiNapoli. The tomatoes – seasoned with a bit of sea salt and basil – are sealed into large cans whose colorful label combines Bianco’s own hand-drawn letters over a nostalgic image of a tomato plant, painted by his father. The line will continue with this year’s harvest, set to be picked the first week of September. Twenty-eight-ounce cans (price to be determined) will be sold at Pane Bianco, through the Bianco DiNapoli website, and from select friends and grocers across the country.
Another collaboration is about to get international buzz: He’s partnering with superstar chef Jamie Oliver on a new restaurant concept in London. Tentatively called Union Jack’s, it’s set to open this fall. Last August, Bianco went to England for three weeks to work on the project, and he went again this past summer.
“I fell in love with London,” he says. “I was seeing places where things have been made for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Bianco says he’s open to doing more collaborations like Union Jack’s, but he isn’t interested in opening any new spots in Phoenix. Instead, he wants to maximize the potential of what he already has.
In February, Bianco expanded Pane Bianco’s hours to include dinner, adding a daily chalkboard menu of roasted vegetable dishes, salads and pastas made in-house from Arizona-grown durum wheat. Then, in April, he launched lunch service at the pizzeria – something he hadn’t done in many years but considered necessary.
Along with extended business hours, Bianco began an expansion of Pane Bianco in August, after its longtime neighbor, Lux Coffee, moved into an adjacent property. Pane, which was originally a compact, counter-service-only spot serving gourmet sandwiches and salads, will soon occupy the entire building.
Bianco has a vision for the restaurant as “an artisanal food community space with a Zen quality to it,” where he’ll hold wine dinners, special events and book signings. Indoor seating will be plentiful, thanks to one big communal picnic table made from full-length timber. A retail area will feature olive oil from California, cookbooks, Arizona wines, sea salt from Utah, artisanal cheese and charcuterie, and organic flour.
The plans for Pane Bianco have been in the works for a long time, and have hinged on Lux’s departure. But now, there’s new urgency for the expansion.
That organic flour – produced under the name Hayden Flour Mills, after the historic mill in Tempe that closed in 1998 – will be milled in-house from Arizona grains, and Bianco’s miller, Jeff Zimmerman, is eager to start production this fall, using a stone mill shipped from Austria.
“I’m getting more thorough with my ingredients. I’m going deeper,” Bianco says. “If people liked what we did before, I know we can make something that takes it to another level.”
“Driving around Phoenix you’d never have an inkling that this was the biggest wheat-growing area between the Mississippi River and California,” says Gary Paul Nabham, the award-winning nature writer, ethnobiologist and co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit devoted to conservation of heirloom seeds of the Southwest. But if Bianco and Zimmerman get their way, grain crops could eventually make a comeback.
“We grow some of the best durum wheat in the world – in our own backyard,” Bianco says. “But something like 70 percent of it is sent to Italy. We want consumers here to be able to buy this.”
The chef is already making pasta at Pane Bianco with Desert Durum wheat from a farm in Maricopa, and thanks to Nabham and Sabores Sin Fronteras (Flavors Without Borders, an alliance that celebrates regional agricultural and culinary traditions), he’s discovered White Sonora, one of the oldest wheat varieties in North America. A handful of farmers are growing it in Amado and Patagonia, Arizona.
Nabham says White Sonora was the primary wheat milled at the Hayden Flour Mills back in its heyday. Bread created from its flour looks white even though it’s whole grain; Bianco is testing it for pastries and tortillas, along with other types of grains.
Bianco established himself in Phoenix by selling handmade pasta and pulled mozzarella to local restaurants. Here, he makes fresh pasta dough for malloreddus.
The team is also growing chapalote, an heirloom corn that Nabham calls some of the best-tasting corn in the Southwest. “It has an almost popcorn-like, rich-tasting flour,” he says.
It’s a dream come true for Zimmerman. He and Bianco were already thinking along similar lines when they met about a year ago. “People are already doing a lot with heritage vegetables, but I just wanted to find out what ancient grains would taste like. It turns out, the taste is incredible,” Zimmerman says.
Nabham’s friend Glenn Roberts, founder of South Carolina’s Anson Mills, inspired the collaboration. Beginning in the ’90s, Roberts obsessively researched nearly extinct grain varieties, and slowly developed a network of farmers to grow and harvest them. Thanks to his milling efforts with heirloom corn, grits are no longer second-rate fare but a delicacy prized by the country’s top chefs. Bianco serves Anson Mills polenta at Pane Bianco with local Schreiner’s sausage.
Nabham has been working for 30 years on conserving food diversity in the Southwest – he started Native Seeds/SEARCH in the early ’80s, collecting small quantities of rare seeds from farmers, many of whom were elderly and had no successors. He never imagined he’d see a revival of heirloom crops in his lifetime, but Bianco assured him that there would be a buyer for them.
“The pieces weren’t really coming together until he brought them together,” Nabham says. “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened.”
“There’s such a difference between things that taste good and things that are good,” adds Bianco. “My role is more about what is available to us to harness.”
Bianco didn’t know a soul in Phoenix when he moved here in 1986 from New York, but he soon established himself with hand-pulled mozzarella and pasta, made in his apartment, that he sold to restaurants including Avanti, Pronto and Franco’s Trattoria.
He went on to cater parties and then started his pizza business in 1988 with a simple wood-fired oven in the back of Guy Coscas’ Euro Market, at the corner of Central and Camelback. (Nowadays it’s an AJ’s, and there’s still a pizza oven.)
At one point, Bianco actually wanted to get away from pizza, which he’d been making since he was a teen. “Growing up in the pizza biz, there was no transparency. I used to fold pizza boxes when I was a kid that said, ‘You’ve tried the rest, now try the best.’ Well, they were using block cheese, and the tomatoes were from Italy, but where? You didn’t really ask questions, and you couldn’t Google it.”
Bianco emphasizes that “delicious” is different than “good,” and that just because something looks and even tastes delicious doesn’t mean it comes from a good place.
“I wanted to be a ‘proper chef,’ but pizza resonated with me. It’s a non-threatening entity,” he says, explaining that he wants people to see the goodness behind ingredients like organic flour, purified water and local tomatoes.
In 1990, Bianco moved to Santa Fe to work at Babbo Ganzo for chef Giovanni Scorzo, whom he deeply respects. (Scorzo is now the proprietor of Andreoli Italian Grocer in Scottsdale.) During his two-year stint there, he also met chef David Tanis from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and food writer Elizabeth Berry.
“They really exposed me to the philosophy of seasonality, and the importance of having a relationship with farmers,” he says. He’d already been interested in ingredient-driven cuisine, but they helped him connect the dots.
The humble approach to cooking, which lets the best possible ingredients shine with the least interference, came full circle a year after Bianco opened his original location at the Town & Country shopping center in central Phoenix, when Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters came for dinner.
“The first time I cooked for Alice Waters, in 1995, I was standing in the same place I always was, in front of the oven, and errch! It was a pretty humbling moment when she walked in. I was like, ‘Holy shit, what do I do? What do I make?’ She said make me whatever you want, so I went for what I love best – the marinara. It’s the one I eat the most. There’s something very humble and simple and naked about it,” Bianco says. “I also made her a fennel and tangerine salad.”
Meeting Waters was just the beginning of a friendship that has grown over the years.
“She’s someone that’s really helped me. I connected with her in the way she cooked. There was such a clarity and passivity and intention,” he says. “Alice found her role, and she shared her glory with [former Chez Panisse chefs] Mark Miller and with Jeremiah Tower.”
Most of all, Bianco adds, “The missing link for me was, ‘You’ll never be more important than your ingredients.’”
As a champion of Arizona produce, he wants to make his own backyard the envy of the world, and to create opportunities for other talented souls to improve upon it.
“If I raise the bar, it’s only so others can dance on it.”