From the mailbag:
I now log into Slice every day and really enjoy it. When will you have the write-up and photos from Pizzeria Bianco up?
OK. Bianco. Yeah.
Sorry, Rich. I'm actually trying to juice the Slice traffic numbers by making you and the rest of the readers who have been following Pizza Madness 2009 check the site every day.
... Just kidding. I just got a bit behind with Thanksgiving and now the holidays and all that jazz. Now it is time to tell my tale. In mind-numbing dear-diary detail. For I wish to remember this day until time withers my body and mind. Here we go ...
So, yeah, Pizzeria Bianco. It's been a bit of a (very inside) joke around here that yours truly, the editor of a pizza weblog that purports to be on top of all things pizza, had not ever been to Bianco. It really start to hurt when almost everyone I knew had been and emailed in about it. And then when folks like Norman and Paulie and Famdoc started giving me shit about it in the comments.
Well, thanks to the project Ed and I are working on, it was now my time.
Anticipating lunch at Pizzeria Bianco spin-off Pane Bianco, I walked hurriedly along the moving sidewalk in Phoenix's Sky Harbor airport, stopping only to snap a photo of the dramatic airport backdrop (above) before grabbing a shuttle bus to connect to the city's awesome little light rail system.
I hopped the light rail and 20 minutes later was at my hotel in midtown Phoenix. It was a little past noon.
For this leg of the trip, the only pizzeria on my agenda was Bianco, and having ample time to kill before it opened at 5 p.m., I figured I'd mosey a couple stops up the light rail to Pane Bianco for lunch. Serious Eats overlord Ed Levine had recommended Pane almost as highly as Pizzeria.
But then I looked closely at the key card to my hotel room:
What the hell, I thought. Forget Bianco, then. I'll just order in some Domino's, watch some PPV TV, and head home tomorrow morning.
But seriously. I charged my various data-gathering devices and then headed out to Pane Bianco.
One thing to note about Pane Bianco is that it is nowhere near the downtown Bianco compound. Pizzeria Bianco is in historic Heritage Square, a small area of preserved old-time buildings in downtown Phoenix. Pizzeria B itself is in an old machine shop. Next door to it is Bar Bianco, in an old house. I had somehow assumed that Bar Bianco and Pane Bianco were in the same house. No dice. Pane Bianco is on Central Avenue, a main north-south corridor, about four miles north of Pizzeria. Here:
View Pizza Madness 2009: Phoenix Leg in a larger map
The bed is my hotel. The thumbtack to the north is Pane. The one to the south is Pizzeria B and Bar B. The north-south red and blueish-purplish lines are the light rail. All in all, pretty darn good luck with the hotel that the travel agent booked me into, wouldn't you say?
(Nota bene: At this point I should give a shout out to the blog PHX Rail Food, which I found very helpful during my short stay in Phoenix. It details all the good places worth going to within a half mile of the region's light rail line.)
Pane Bianco is Chris Bianco's sandwich shop. It's open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
"A sandwich shop?" you say. "Big deal."
Well, the crazy thing about this sandwich shop is that the bread (pane, in Italian)—small rounds of ciabatta, about the diameter of a softball—are baked fresh throughout the lunch service. As you stand in the small ordering area up front, you can see the bakers pulling the hot disks, puffed up like hot pita bread, from the wood-burning oven in the step-down kitchen area below. As soon as the bread is cool to the touch, it's split open to house your ingredients, and you get a still-warm sandwich base. How awesome is that?
I was in a bit of a pickle as to what to get. The soppressata sandwich was what I really wanted, but I'd been trying to keep it as healthy as possible during the trip and didn't want to add preserved meat to my gullet when I didn't have to. My next choice was fresh mozzarella and tomato, but I hesitated. I'd essentially be having the same thing later that day. Obviously (see above), I went with the fresh mozzarella sandwich.
Pretty damn good. True to the Bianco way — source the best ingredients and don't do anything to muck them up. Just let 'em shine. Sort of like what they teach doctors: First, do no harm.
No harm, no foul here. I ate half (keeping room for dinner) and saved the rest for my plane ride lunch the next day.
It was now 1:30 p.m. Time to go stake my place in line at Pizzeria Bianco.
I hopped back on the light rail, got off at Van Buren Street (the downtown streets are named after presidents), and walked to the Bianco compound. Taking my time, I got there around 2:30 p.m. Guess what? FIRST IN LINE! No surprise, right?
Yeah, it's true that people do line up well ahead of the 5 p.m. opening time, but 2:30 is admittedly crazier than usual.
Ed Levine had given me owner-pizzaman Chris Bianco's phone number, telling me to call and that since Mr. Bianco knows and likes Slice I could probably skip the line.
But it was important to me that I get the everyman experience*—and, as a point of personal pride, I WANTED TO BE FIRST IN LINE.
After snapping some pics, I plunked down on the first bench, pulled out my laptop, and started editing and organizing photos. But I had a problem: I had to take a leak.
Luckily there's a pub across the street that's open from lunch on: The Rose and Crown. And it has free wifi. I grabbed a beer, hit the can, leeched the signal, and then reclaimed my spot on the bench. (Tip: You can still get the Rose and Crown wifi signal from the bench in front of Bianco.)
Making New Friends
Shortly after 3 p.m., a hip young woman sat down on the next bench over. After a bit, we started talking.
(See, the thing I'd heard about the line at Bianco—apart from its legendary length—is that it's not uncommon to make friends with your fellow captives. Nothing like shared suffering to bring people together.)
Turns out that this woman, Anastasia L., was Bar Bianco's wine distributor rep. She was there early on business and, work done, was killing time before her husband and friends met her there for dinner at 5 p.m. She gave me some pointers about the line ...
"People usually start lining up around 3:30 p.m.," she said. "They usually line up at the door, but you'll be fine on the bench here. People keep track in their heads of who's where in the line—and, trust me, they won't anyone skip ahead."
Anastasia and I chatted for about 20 minutes before the first of the "real" line-waiters showed up. And by "real," I mean people who were not pizza-bloggers or people who were not Bianco's wine broker. These folks stated taking seats on the benches lining the sidewalk. For some reason, nobody sat next to me on my bench. I had taken a shower that morning, and I looked somewhat presentable. What gives? I thought.
And then a gentleman by the name of Marty asked if he and his wife, Cathy, could sit there. "We know we're eighth and ninth in line," he said, "we're not going to cut, but we'd like a place to sit."
After a bit, Marty and I started chatting. Turns out he's quite a food-lover. (As are most of these folks in the line, I assume.) But Marty's gone so far as to work with some cattle ranchers in his home state of Nebraska to raise some special cattle, feeding them a precise-sounding diet, and then dry-aging their meat into what Marty said were some crazy-fine steaks. He tells me about the chefs he's had sample the steaks and how he has tried to distribute the meat. It's been a while, so I don't remember all the details Marty told me about his beef adventures, but suffice it to say, he sounded like a man obsessed. In other words, he's good people, I thought.
At this point I realized I had identified at least two of my "victims." See, I needed to gather some folks to eat with, so I could try one of each of Bianco's six pies on the menu. Marty and Cathy sounded like ideal companions. (Anastasia, if you're reading, I would have invited you and your husband, but you sounded like you had a large crew already and that you had the Bianco connex to make your own way. Sorry!)
Anyway, around 4 p.m., Bar Bianco next door (above) opens and the Pizzeria B staff brings out the chairs for the tables just in front of the pizzeria door. So then there's sort of a rush to get a bottle of wine or a beer and grab one of the available chairs. Again, although the crowd reconfigures to the new seating arrangement, you can tell that everyone has a mental pecking-order of who's where in the line.
Party of Five
I soon found myself at the first waiting table with Marty and Cathy and another couple, Teri and Rich (whose email message appears way way way at the top of this now interminable blog post). We all get to talking and we all find out something crazy: We are all Kansans of some sort.
Rich and Teri live about 15 minutes from where I grew up in suburban Kansas City and are in Phoenix on vacation. Marty and Cathy are originally from the Sunflower State. Of the five of us (if I remember this correctly), four of us (maybe even all five of us) are University of Kansas alumni. Upon finding this out, we all break into a quick chorus of the "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" chant. What I do not tell them: I am so nuts about Kansas that I have a tattoo of the state seal on my right bicep. So, yeah, you could say the pizza gods had smiled upon me and that I had found the perfect companions to experience Bianco with. Rich and Teri and Marty and Cathy were now all sucked into the Slice Pizza Madness 2009 vortex. And the whirlwind was just about to start ...
Oh, yeah. The door of opportunity had opened. We were in. And after 2.5 hours of waiting, I relished this view out the window at the slowpokes:
Oh, yes. That is a sweet view, is it not?
In Which I Finally Talk About the Pizza itself
This whole trip, I had a nagging thought: Bianco is not going to live up to the hype. I mean, how could it? I've only heard from everybody and his brother that it's awesome, life-changing pizza.
So I expected it to be good, even very good, but in no way life-changing. I mean, it's just pizza, right?
Obviously I'm setting this up to say that it lived up to the hype and then some. It did and it didn't.
Basically, two pies there really bowled me over: the Marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic) and the Rosa.
The marinara needs no explanation, but if you're not versed in pizza, a marinara pie is basically crust, tomato sauce, and some seasonings—usually salt and pepper and basil (and sometimes a sprinkling of Parmesan). I usually avoid marinara pies because, although I was raised in Kansas, I was born in Wisconsin, which means I LOVE ME SOME CHEESE. But I figured, How soon will I be back to Bianco? Might as well try them all.
I think I can speak for our entire table when I say we were surprised at the richness of flavor on this pie. It was remarkable how much could be done with so little. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Since I've been doing this thing in chronological order, let's rewind back to the first pie to hit the table, the Biancoverde:
The Biancoverde (literally "white-green") is a pie with fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-reggiano, ricotta, and arugula. No sauce. Good, but I don't remember it that well because ....
... out came The Sonny Boy, with its salami and olives—a couple steps up the deliciousness scale.
If I had not jumped the continuity train, the Marinara pie would have been pictured here, as it was the third pizza to arrive among us. So, moving on to the fourth ...
... The Wiseguy, wood-roasted onion, house-smoked mozzarella, and fennel sausage. Though I normally love the sausage and onion combo, and this one was delicious, it was soon to be eclipsed by ...
I mean, look at that thing.
Or, maybe that's not a great picture? It had gotten dark by the time the Rosa came out, and Rich was holding up a candle over the pies to try to help me get some light. So lemme steal another one of Robyn Lee's Bianco pictures to illustrate the awesomeness of this pizza:
If you're not already familiar with the Bianco repertoire, the Rosa is topped with red onion, Parmigiano-reggiano, rosemary, and Arizona pistachios.
What kind of crazy-ass topping combo is that? A genius one. Absolutely amazing. The sweetness of the roasted onions, the nuttiness slight crunch of the pistachios. The saltiness of the Parm. And there's just enough rosemary — a little goes a long way, and here there's just a hint of it. Not enough to get tired of it, I reckon, if you ate a whole Rosa by yourself. Not that I'd know for sure. I could have eaten a whole Rosa myself, but I had to share with my new friends.
Anyway, last to come to the table was the Margherita. See, this would have been an amazing Margherita anywhere else. But at Bianco, it took a back seat to the Rosa. Like the way-back back seat in a 1970s station wagon. Still, it was pretty damn good. With a certain umami flavor to it that few of the Margheritas on this trip just didn't have. It wasn't just the right amount of salt — it had a deep, rich, savory oomph to it.
It was all a whirl. By the time we neared the end of the meal, there were stray slices from each pie and I think I could see the gears turning in everyone's head: "I want the last slice of XYZ pie. It's mine! It's mine! (But I don't want to look greedy."
Somehow, I weaseled the last slice of the Rosa. And I think the other stray slices disappeared as well. I don't think we had any leftovers. Rich, Teri, Marty, Cathy: Did we have any leftovers? We better not have!
On the way out, I thanked Mr. Bianco and the staff for a great meal and got a tip for my pre-flight breakfast. "Go to Matt's Big Breakfast," Mr. Bianco said. The guy knows food. How could I ignore that recommendation? And, funny enough, who did I see there but Marty and Cathy.
Anyway, I gathered my gear, hopped on the light rail for the last time, and made my way back to Sky Harbor with time to spare. (By the way: Phoenix Sky Harbor IS AWESOME. It has free, airport-provided wifi. No T-mobile hotspots, no Boingo crap. Sky Harbor, you're one classy airport. Thank you.)
A few hours later I was in Kansas City, visiting my parents and recharging my physical and mental batteries before the final stop on my tour — Delancey in Seattle.
I'll blab a little on that later today. Unfortunately, I have no photos from that leg of the tour, as I lost my photo library during an upgrade to Mac OS X 10.6.
*If by "everyman" you mean "someone who takes the day off to line up 2.5 hours before a place opens."