Chris Bianco is a homegrown legend in a town where legends always seem in short supply. He got his start in 1988 hawking pies in Phoenix-area grocery stores, later opening the acclaimed Pizzeria Bianco, with its elegant thin-crust pies and five-hour waits. Bianco collected a James Beard Award in 2003; he’s also the subject of a recent Valley-produced documentary film, I Used to Say Never.
The chef suffered a few setbacks in recent years, including an asthma flare-up that drew him away from his pizza ovens and the rebranding of his generically named Italian Restaurant inside Phoenix’s Town & Country shopping plaza to an outpost of Pizzeria Bianco. Undeterred, Bianco leased the space next door and spent months conceiving the décor and menu of his latest effort – the rustic, Italian-inspired Tratto.
Restaurant No. 2 at Town & Country is a knockout for the chef. Tratto has a charming Italian countryside feel and simple yet refined fare to match. The whitewashed interior is elegant and clean with a homey sensibility that carries from weathered sideboards and repurposed wooden doors to still-life artwork hand-painted by the chef’s father. Meanwhile, the maestro himself can often be found manning the trattoria’s tiny farmhouse kitchen, pausing to regale guests with personal stories or offer a wine suggestion to visiting friends.
That’s the allure of Tratto – it has that spark of presence and ambition that longtime fans might remember from the earliest days of Pizzeria Bianco. Revolutionary? Maybe not. Sassi and Sam Fox’s North staked out the “Italian farmhouse” niche first, but Bianco’s handling of rustic dishes like braised pork shank and ragù-smothered sorpresine is so natural that you might as well be tasting them for the first time. Once again, Bianco proves himself a master of form.
Tratto’s ever-evolving menu is divided into five courses: antipasti, pasta, main dishes, contorni (sides) and basic desserts, or dolci. “Try one item from each,” advised our server on my first visit. We did one better the next time, ordering nearly one of everything à la Queen Latifah’s character in the 2006 remake of Last Holiday.
Most of Tratto’s antipasti are modest plates that pair well with Bianco’s fresh-baked breads and complimentary platter of mixed olives and flavorful house-cured meat. But from humble beginnings springs great flavor. Drenched in olive oil and herbs, baby artichokes alla romano are earthy and comforting, with thick pecorino chunks for added bite. Pungent gorgonzola could easily have overpowered Bianco’s roasted beets – thankfully, the chef shows a controlled hand with the cheese, melting it and cooking the taproot in fig leaves to allow its natural forest-floor flavor to shine through.
Bibb lettuce gets a basic treatment with shaved parmesan and tangy vinaigrette. It’s basically a poor man’s Caesar salad, minus the fishy undertone. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Tratto’s crudité plate, which features crisp fennel, carrots and other veggies with lemony bagna cauda – a watery, anchovy-dominated dip that pollutes the natural garden flavor of the vegetables, making them taste more like Lake Mead castoffs than farm-fresh produce. This one’s definitely a sinker.
Spicy house-cured coppa with sweet, fleshy white peaches makes for a fresher tasting starter. Or try the amazing farinata, an unleavened chickpea pancake popular in Tuscany. Bianco’s version is crisp outside, with a soft interior that lands somewhere between frittata and Coney Island knish. Squash blossoms are a welcome addition, adding subtle sweetness without overwhelming the dish’s savory starch base.
The starchiness of fava beans can be off-putting, but Bianco handles the legumes like a pro by soft-cooking them in browned butter and sage. The beans are served alongside pillowy scarpinòcc (slipper-shaped pasta), their grassy flavor and chewy texture complementing the noodle’s creamy ricotta filling. In contrast, rendered pork fat makes the tomato-based guanciale dish tonnarelli all’amatriciana estiva smack unpleasantly of diner griddle. If you’re not gaga for guanciale, the hand-shaped sorpresine with meat ragù is a more palatable alternative. Thick, chunky sauce, toothsome noodles and savory ground meat make for a comforting dish that stands up to traditional Bolognese. “It tastes like home,” quipped one of my dining companions. Sure, if your home is on the Mediterranean.
I was treated to two pork mains on subsequent visits, both of which were well-prepared and well-matched to silky Blue Sky Farms potatoes with garlic and rosemary. The juicy chop delights with sweet apricots that melt into a semi-glaze on its golden brown exterior, yet the meat literally pales in comparison to the Marsala-braised shank. Prepared Milanese-style with a crunchy outer crumb, the succulent pork slides off the bone on the first fork jab. It’s so tender and flavorful that you don’t even need the accompanying mushroom sauce, though the earthy, herb-studded broth is still worth dipping into.
I’d dock Bianco points for passing off a bowl of cold Blue Sky Farms strawberries as a restaurant dessert, if they weren’t so delicious. Ripe and sweet, the tiny red berries reminded me of the backyard plants found at my grandmother’s homestead in upstate New York. They pair beautifully with house-made chocolate gelato as rich and thick as melted semi-sweet chocolate. It’s almost too sweet, but trust me – that’s a burden you’ll want to bear.
When it comes to pizza, Bianco is a master. His pies are still considered some of the best in the nation by critics like Eater.com’s Bill Addison and Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten. But can his pasta and chops stand up against Avanti’s osso bucco or the hand-shaped orecchiette at Sassi? As the Italians say, “finora va tutto bene” (so far, so good). Factoring in the service level and generally dead-aim cooking, I’d comfortably rank Tratto among the Top 5 Italian restaurants in the Valley – a fine mid-period offering from one of the great Valley masters.