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July 05, 2011

Pizzeria Bianco

Sonny Boy Dominic Armato

Does more really need to be written about Pizzeria Bianco?

Either way, I'm going to try. This blog's a personal journal as much as it's a public site. More, actually. So while I'm not sure I have much to add beyond another opinion, I can't pretend one of the world's premiere pizzerias doesn't exist a scant ten minutes from my front door. Not for more than a year and a half, anyway, which is how long it took me to stop by.

Whether or not Pizzeria Bianco deserves such far-flung attention (and the crushing throngs that result) is a common topic of debate, but its high profile is undeniable. Plenty of other Phoenix institutions, both restaurants and chefs, have garnered national praise over the years, but the valley's undisputed culinary flagship is none other than a little pizza joint opened in the late '80s. Despite my best efforts, it needs no introduction. It's not a restaurant. It's a shrine. Which means that reviews and comments fall almost exclusively into two categories: It's amazing, or it's not all that. I really, really hoped for the former.

The OvenDominic Armato

After hearing reports of the dreaded 3+ hour waits, what finally got me in the door was the recent introduction of lunch hours, which have had the dual effect of making Chris Bianco's pizzas attainable with a reasonable 30-45 minute wait during lunchtime on weekdays, and also taking a little pressure off dinner service. Reportedly, the wait times at night have come down a bit since they extended their hours. So in the short span of a week, I went twice, first for an early lunch and then for a late dinner. And no wonder the waits are long... the place is small! Of course, restaurants come plenty smaller, but combine a modest size with national acclaim and you've got yourself a long line out front. It's one big room, the oven in one corner and the bar in another, and though the tables are densely packed, a lofty ceiling keeps it from getting claustrophobic. It's a great space, appropriate to the food. It's a little busy, a little loud, and plenty casual. There isn't much to the menu... a couple of salads, a couple of antipasto options, and a handful of pizzas, though they aren't sacrosanct. There's a list of toppings from which you can substitute or create your own. Still, it's a minimal menu and this is an approach I enthusiastically support. Do less, and do it better.

Farmers Market SaladDominic Armato

And they do it better right from the get go. The antipasto plate, which is only available at dinnertime, is a wonderfully simple presentation of whatever produce is seasonal and/or fabulous, roasted in the oven and treated with little more than olive oil and a little salt and pepper. On the evening I went, there was cauliflower, padrón peppers, mushrooms and fennel, along with a little eggplant parmesan, olives, and a bit of cheese and cured meat. Simple, fresh and delicious all around, touched with the smoke and occasionally the char of the wood burning oven. The farmers market salad was a similarly minimal treat, this particular seasonal iteration composed of arugula, peaches, goat cheese and pistachios. In both cases, they were killer ingredients, very simply presented. For a pizza place, this bodes well.

MargheritaDominic Armato

And then the pizzas started arriving. And then they disappeared almost as quickly as they arrived. On the first lunchtime visit, three of us ordered three pizzas. And then we ordered a fourth. And we might have spent a grand total of ten minutes actually eating. This was driven in no small part, I'm sure, by the incredible color of what hit the table. It was as though Bianco has somehow developed a way to turn up the saturation in his restaurant, so that every pizza is awash with the most brilliant reds, greens, pinks and oranges you've seen on a plate. Whether or not he can cook a pizza, he apparently has the ability to alter your perception of reality, which I suppose is a feat in and of itself. But thankfully, the flavors were as outstanding as the colors, a perfect combination of killer toppings and killer bread.

RosaDominic Armato

The bread, of course, is all-important, and on our lunchtime visit, it was truly remarkable. Though plainly inspired by, this isn't a Neapolitan with blistered but chewy crust and (hopefully!) soupy center. Rather, the cornicone on these pizzas lent the impression that it had survived an even more brutal trial by fire than usual, heavily charred and dark brown in most places. The flavor was perfect, and the texture was truly exceptional, a firm and extremely crisp exterior with just a touch of tender dough inside, almost more crunchy than chewy, but not in a way that lent the impression it had been taken too far. It was walked right to the precipice of being overdone, and then left hanging on the edge, as texturally developed as it's possible to get without venturing into cracker territory. Further inward, the dough was thin, lightly charred underneath with a great chewy texture, and not a hint of a wet center, which I'm sure will please the infidels who insist that means a pizza is underdone. (To be clear, this is not a negative... I fully embrace both.)

WiseguyDominic Armato

With such a solid foundation, these would be great pizzas with only acceptable toppings, but they were equally excellent above the crust. The tomatoes, mozzarella and basil on the Margherita were shockingly fresh and vibrant, even if I (narrowly) prefer this particular set of toppings on a more traditional Neapolitan. Also fairly simple but better suited to the crust was the Biancoverde, a mix of parmigiano reggiano, fresh mozzarella and ricotta strewn with fresh arugula. Stacking cheeses is dangerous work, and often done clumsily, but they nailed the balance, mixing the creaminess of fresh mozzarella, the sweetness of ricotta and the sharp, nutty pungency of melted parmigiano reggiano. Less traditional was the Rosa, matching fresh, local pistachios with the nutty parmesan and fresh rosemary for an herbal accent. Surprisingly critical to this one was what seemed at first like a token amount of shaved red onion, giving just a hint of sweetness without which the rest would have come off just a touch flat. The Wiseguy seems to be a popular favorite, with caramelized onions, Schreiner's sausage and smoked mozzarella, and though I agree with the oft-presented criticism that it's a little heavy for the bread, it's still a heckuva pizza. My total amazement, however, is reserved for the Sonny Boy, with tomato, mozzarella, thin slices of salami and the salty punch of gaeta olives. What floored me here was the salami, subjected to heat that rendered some of the fat, basting the pizza and almost frying the meat, giving it a light crispiness that made it a textural delight.

These were, without question, some of the best pizzas I've tasted. If I'd been limited to the first lunch visit, I'd find myself wondering how anybody could possibly take shots at the place. The second visit provided, perhaps, a bit of a clue. We just barely caught the end of dinner service on a weeknight, and though the restaurant was packed to the gills when we were seated, within 30 minutes we were the only table remaining. The pizzas were excellent, but they weren't as stunning as the week before. As the lone stragglers, I suspect the fire that cooked our pizzas had started to die. The incredible char and texture wasn't quite there, leading me to believe that the oven perhaps wasn't quite as hot as it was for the lunchtime rush. And I don't fault the restaurant. We arrived closer to closing time than I would have liked, and had I realized that every other table in the joint was so close to finishing, I wouldn't have held them up. Catching (again, I suspect) a cooling oven at this late hour resulted in a pizza that I could see the hardcore enthusiasts seeing as underperforming the reputation. But let's be absolutely clear about something. Across two visits, the worst pizza I've had at Pizzeria Bianco is still one of the finest pizzas I've had anywhere. And I'm really, really glad that lunch service means I don't have to wait three hours for it, because if I had to, I probably would.

Pizzeria Bianco
623 E. Adams Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Tue - Sat11:00 AM - 10:00 PM


One of my favorites was the Rosa, but with additional mushrooms. Glad to see you FINALLY made it here!

Aww, this is one of the things I miss about Phoenix. I did the three hour plus (it was usually plus) waits a few times with friends - someone would skip out of work early and get our name on the list, everyone else would trickle in, and we'd hang out at the wine bar until our name was called. Of course, this meant that by the time you actually got your food you were (a) starving and (b) kind of drunk. I was never 100% sure whether the pizza was really that good or if Dominos would have tasted just as good at that.

km... Ha! I think I actually like your explanation better :-)

But rest assured, it really is that good.

Glad you finally made it, Dom. Yeah, the pizza is special, and well worth the wait. "The wait" is such a deterrent to the uneducated who don't realize that the whole Bianco's experience is so much more than just sliding up to the feeding trough and shoveling it in. There's something appropriately reverent about spending a few hours chatting and drinking with friends before eating. Love this place.

Tim... for us, at least, the holdup was kids. A three hour wait just isn't going to happen with a toddler. And on a night out, that's an extra three hours we have to rope somebody into watching them for us. No matter how much I agree with you, and I do, a chunk of time that big is tough to come by.

Totally understand your dilemma, Dom. That kind of wait strains the limits of parenting voodoo, even for the most skilled. The entitled young hipster crowd that complains is what really bugs me. But then they should stay away and reduce the wait-list for other folks. And then there are the people who have never been and loudly denigrate the establishment to any and all...philistines!!

I'm in Phoenix (from the east coast) on business and I work and stay within walking distance of Pizzeria Bianco. I've eaten there for dinner twice in the last five weeks. I was by myself so I was seated immediately at a small table the first time and waited 30 minutes the second time in the wine bar next door and was then seated at the restaurant’s bar. Both times I had the Biancoverde Pizza with a bottle of wine and loved it. I scarfed the pizzas down in short order and there were no leftovers!

I've had this type of pizza (white pizza with arugula) a few times at various places. Pizzeria Bianco does it very well, but so do some other wood-fired pizza places in NYC. Also, my brother owns a wood-fired bakery in Delaware so I’ve had lots of good wood-fired products, including this type of pizza. That said I have NO trouble believing that this is the best pizza in Phoenix and I may try it for lunch next week and will probably eat there for dinner every other week until my business here is done.

I want you to know that this blog is my number one resource for finding good food in Phoenix. Zagat.com has been of little use. I’ve been following your Top-Chef Rankings since Top Chef Season 4 when Ted Allen recommended it in his BravoTV blog. I primarily eat in restaurants overseas or in Philly and NYC so, up until now, I haven’t been able to take advantage of your restaurant reviews (but I always look at the photos – speaking of which, I’ve been taking photos of my food for almost 20 years – I used to get a lot of stares, but I bought a $100.00 “point-and-click” Nikon Digital Camera a few weeks ago in Dubai and it has a setting just for food photos!!!)

Thanks to you I've eaten at Gallo Blanco three times (always on Tuesday 3 tacos for the price of 2 night) and I just ate at Taco Atoyac this evening. So, a belated thank you to you for your blog!

Finally, I cannot recommend the restaurant in my hotel (The Westin) named Province. It looks good on paper, but it is pretty mediocre. The restaurant at the Sheraton a few blocks east on Van Buren named District seems to be better, but I only ate there once (beef short-rib stroganoff).

Maybe we’ll bump into each other one night!?!?

Thanks for the kind words, MGStickler!

Naturally, there are other outstanding pizzas to be had all over. If you've been reading for a while, you know I'm not the type to declare winners. But when you're talking about the most exciting pizza places out there, Bianco clearly belongs in the coversation.

I'm completely with you on Province. I didn't write anything about it because I was kind of distracted the night I went there, but it was across-the-board terrible for me.

Glad some of this is useful to you! Definitely don't limit yourself to me, though. I'm only a year and a half in with kids, so my experience isn't remotely comprehensive. I'm still catching up on a bunch of citywide standards and there are gaping holes in what I've gotten to so far.

Give me a few more years :-)

Maybe its the lighting but the Margherita looks overdone. A little char is wanted. All black, no.

The biancaverde sounds close to my ideal pizza order. The quickest route to my culinary heart is to plop rocket on something.

Anon Man... That was precisely my first thought when it hit the table, but I actually didn't mind. I preferred the others, but it wasn't as chartastic as its appearance might suggest. It's also worth noting that the framing doesn't help. The portion that was charred more heavily is front and center, while the stuff that was cut out of the frame was more in line with the others.

Wow, the picture of that Rosa pizza makes me think the hype is worth it. Would love to try to recreate at home but just seeing it makes me want to jump on a flight to the desert.

The Sonny Boy is still one of my favorite meals of all time.

Hi Dom,

I e-mailed you back about my trip to Phoenix about a week ago. Let me know if you're interested in any of those spots. This post just confirms Bianco on my list.

Hi Dom,

No idea what your schedule is like but I e-mailed ya a few days back if you want to meet up for a bite somewhere. Already meeting a couple ChowHounder members along the way, but always good to meet more locals in a place you're considering for relocation.


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