James Beard award–winning chef Chris Bianco, of Phoenix's famous Pizzeria Bianco, is quick to turn down the notion that his pies are the best in the country as he fires a few at his Downtown location. Depending on your tastes, his may not even be the best on the block.
"It’s only the best if you like it, if it's your favorite," Bianco, 51, explains while watching the dough rise and crack in his wood-fired oven. "Our ingredients are the finest you can procure, but we're not making art. With food, we eat it, we enjoy it, but we have to do it again the next day. What makes something good to me is the intention, the execution, and the repetition."
Bianco got his start in the pizza business at 13, folding boxes that read "You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Try the Best" at a small shop just off the Hudson in Ossining, NY. The boxes lied. "The reality is that we were serving the same shitty block mozzarella as everyone else. It tasted pretty good after smoking weed all afternoon, rolling in, and having a slice covered in crusty Parmesan, grease running down your arm. That’s what we were accustomed to." The pizza was good enough, though anything is, really, when you pack enough greasy meat, cheese, and salt on it, he admits. "But just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it is good."
With enough vowels in his name to consider the delicacy his birthright, Bianco began looking for ways to create something special in his pizzas, even pressing fresh mozzarella at his apartment when he could. He wanted his food to not only taste good to drunken college kids stumbling home after midnight, but to look good, smell good, and leave you feeling good.
"I was pretty insecure back then," he says. "I needed cooking to reinforce the idea that I could do something that makes you happy and know that I was okay in life. I continue to do that."
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Bianco left New York in his twenties to gain some perspective, eventually running out of gas in Phoenix, where he hustled in hopes of making enough cash just to spend some time in the sun and figure out the rest of his life. He’s now spent more than thirty years there staring into the bowels of a pizza oven and experimenting with different styles, ingredients, and tastes, while effectively inspiring a generation of artisanal pizza chefs who followed his methods.
"Intention. Execution. Repetition."
Still, Bianco doesn’t assume that he, or anyone else, will ever be able to master the pizza category. "I’m still experimenting. I think you have to. I don’t make art. I just started trying to make something utilitarian, and I'm always looking for a better way home." Now nearing his fourth decade as a chef, he believes it’s the relationship with his environment, and his use of locally or personally grown ingredients and better olive oils that make his food better today than it was in the 80s, even if it’s not necessarily everyone’s favorite.
"I started working in a pizza shop for the free slices and endless Cokes. It wasn’t really a passion at the time," Bianco notes, his latest batch of pies hot and ready to serve. "During that process I discovered that there’s something incredibly noble about this circle cut into triangles. If harnessed with great ingredients, it’s just as special as foie gras or T-bone or any other delicacy. I love its humility."