See those people in the picture above? No, they're not waiting for PlayStations or concert tickets. They are anxiously, competitively queuing for pizza. Not just any pizza, mind you — the "Best Pizza in America," according to Ed Levine, the author of 2005's "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven," who ate a thousand contenders before awarding Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix the blue ribbon. The New York Times concurred, and Vogue called it the best pizza in the world.
It was the night before Thanksgiving, minutes before Pizzeria Bianco's opening time of 5 p.m. The Potato Non Grata, two friends, and I had been waiting for an hour and a half. We were quite happily third in position in a line of at least 100 people … for a restaurant that seats only 40. Thus the expressions on their faces. Pizzeria Bianco does not take reservations for parties of fewer than six people, and only allows a few such reservations per night.
No instructions are posted on the front door, but the regulars know to arrive at least an hour before opening and with luck, grab one of the picnic tables and hang out. The Bar Bianco next door in Heritage Square opens early to serve those waiting; in winter at least, the Phoenix weather makes the experience very pleasant.
Although this was our first time there, I'd read enough accounts to know the protocol. Not so some of the other newcomers. Befuddled by the lack of a list and the fact that no one was actually lined up, just heeding the invisibly ordered tables and benches, around 4:15 p.m. some people had started loitering near the front door. This made others waiting nervous, so a few regulars asserted control. One woman passed out hand-written numbers; unfortunately another man was doing the same thing, so there were duplicates. Grumbling ensued, and enough people started freaking out that we all had to start lining up around 4:45.
Believe it or not, there were still people trying to cut in — a big Marine guy behind us delivered some harsh words for a just-arrived short guy who was silently trying to sneak in to the first group with his family. He melted away. It was really stressful — even though we were third and knew we were going to get to eat!
So what's the deal with this pizza? Why are customers willing to put up with this grueling gauntlet? And is it worth it?
First, let me backtrack. To a casual visitor — one who visits her spouse's family every few years, say — the primary impression of Phoenix, AZ, is of a big-box-retail wasteland. While the desert that surrounds the sprawling city is beautiful, a surprisingly green expanse of saguaro cacti and frizzy brush, the mile after mile of aircraft-carrier-sized Targets and Wal-Marts and Costcos, interspersed with smaller dinghies of Sonic Burgers, U.S. Eggs, and garish Mexican places, all floating on a continuous sea of asphalt is just…depressing.
I know, I know, there are many good places to eat in Phoenix that may or may not be located in the unfortunately named "strip malls." I've been to some of them on previous trips — Cowboy Ciao comes to mind. And yes, food snobbery runs in my genes. But I still think that these two restaurant-marquee signs that I saw during our drive to the hotel from the airport make a sort of citywide statement:
"Italian Food – Fast!" (Wish I could remember the name of this egregious chain.)
At a McDonald's: "Open Thanksgiving Day — Dine with us!"
All this is to explain that when the Potato said that we might, if we hurried, have time to eat at Pizzeria Bianco before we went to the hotel and had to meet up with the family, I was practically doing cartwheels in the car.
Pizzeria Bianco is a legend in our house. The Potato, a Phoenix native (more or less), first ate Chris Bianco's creations over 20 years ago, when Chris was making them in the back of the Euromarket grocery store for the owners of the French Corner breakfast café. The Potato has often rhapsodized about the minimalist perfection of Chris's original "pizza bianco," relying on nothing but perfectly woodfired crust, mozzarella, and basil.
I had long ago Googled Bianco and learned that he won the 2003 James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest, the first pizza chef to win that honor; that he shops for his ingredients at the Phoenix farmers markets (it's true, we saw him there Saturday); and that he uses local olive oils and makes every pizza himself, refusing to branch out or open a second store. I was dying to try it. Yet in eight years of visiting Phoenix together, the opportunity had never presented itself.
It almost didn't happen this time, either. Our first attempt — on Tuesday, on the way from the airport — we got to the restaurant at 5:15 p.m. and were told there was a three to three-and-a-half-hour wait. DOHP!
Next we had to talk the Potato's friends Jon and Jaime, who we were supposed to be having dinner with Wednesday, into camping out with us. Although they were game, as they'd heard how good Bianco was, they were a little skeptical when I said we needed to get there by 3:45, and openly astonished when we did and still weren't even the first group there.
Competition definitely increases one's appetite. The four of us were ravenous by the time we finally sat down. Adrenaline still pumping, we ordered an insalata caprese, the "farmers market salad," and five of the six pizzas, skipping the one without cheese.
So was it worth it? The short answer is yes. Totally. Even our non-foodie friends thought so.
The caprese was the best I've had outside of Capri. The tomatoes were perfectly ripe and tart but not overly acidic, and the mozzarella was exquisite, almost as good as mozzarella di bufala, only mellower. Bianco makes it himself, having learned how back when he was cooking in Brooklyn. The co-owner, Susan — an old friend of the Potato's, not that it helped us get in the first night — told me that although they wish they could get organic milk for the cheese, there simply isn't a big enough local supplier. They're in discussions with an organic dairy in California.
The market salad was lightly dressed arugula, thin slices of local apples (from the nearby mountains, I suspect, where I saw hundreds of laden trees), walnuts, and Pt. Reyes blue cheese. I was disappointed that the cheese wasn't locally made, but the salad was very good.
The Margherita was among the best five such pizzas I've had outside of Naples — and I am very snobby when it comes to my pizze margherita. Chris's woodfired crust was amazing light, tangy, with just the right balance of softness to chewiness. It even had the light dusting of flour on the bottom that I remember so fondly from my childhood. The proportions of tomato sauce and cheese were good, more of both than Neapolitan purists would like, but still less than Americans are used to.
The Rosa, with red onion, parmigiano reggiano, rosemary, and Arizona pistachios, was my favorite. I loved the rosemary hints lurking underneath the strong salty cheese, and the crushed nuts provided a nice textural surprise.
I also really, really liked the Biancoverde, a new version of the one that the Potato had been raving about for years, with fresh mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano, ricotta, and topped with fresh arugula. The Potato was disappointed that arugula had replaced the basil, and thought it was distracting — he wished he'd asked Chris to do the original for him. However, I really liked the crisp contrast of the arugula and the molten, delicious cheese.
I was less excited about the two meat pizzas, but let's face it, I was getting a little full at that point. The Sonny Boy — tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, salami, and gaeta olives — was a tasty twist on the old pepperoni classic. My least favorite was the Wiseguy, which had wood-roasted onion, smoked mozzarella, and fennel sausage. The pieces of sausage were huge and hard to bite through, and the pizza just seemed too heavy, more like a casserole, although I did enjoy the trio of savory flavors. (All of the meat Bianco uses comes from Fra'mani in the Bay Area.)
Pizzeria Bianco and Bar Bianco also make an effort to serve local beers and wines, and I quite enjoyed my improbable glass of Dos Cabezas Sangiovese Toscano 2004 from nearby Cochise County, Arizona. It was dry, medium bodied, and tart but not too tart if I remember correctly (I forgot to take notes).
Service was amazingly efficient and courteous, given that the whole restaurant was seated at once. The restaurant staff did an excellent job of staggering the food among the diners, so that everyone appeared to have something to eat at all times.
Alas, we were too full for dessert. It was also hard to linger with about 40 people milling around outside staring at us through the glass like rapt buzzards. We even had leftovers to bring to Omniwhore and E.I.E.I. Ho, who'd been unable to join us.
Will we go back? I hope so. However, I can't see the Potato waiting outside in 104-degree summer weather, so we'll have to make reservations way in advance and get a large enough group together. Although I'm not sure I'd endure this process in San Francisco, given our abundance of choices, it really was some of the best pizza I've ever had, and certainly the best meal I've ever eaten in Phoenix — and reasonably priced to boot.