The stalking of Chris Bianco begins at 3:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, 90 minutes before there is any hope of hot pizza touching a single tongue.
The faithful and the curious, the foodies and the tourists, the hungry, the whiny and the just plain crazy come to Pizzeria Bianco in downtown Phoenix and settle into the outdoor picnic tables insanely early, even in 113-degree heat, eyeing one another with a mix of glee and gloating. For sure, they’re going to get tables tonight.
They will shovel into their grateful mouths wood-roasted vegetables just barely picked, and fresh mozzarella cheese that Bianco coaxed from curd into milky wonder that morning. They’ll dunk fire-tinged bread in local olive oil and sip wine until their teeth are plummy. When the pizza comes, it might be the Biancoverde, grassy with arugula, or the Wiseguy, all smoky and oniony, sausage-laden and divine. This is the best pizza in the nation, a New York Times food writer sighed in 2004. Nay, the best pizza in the world, crowed Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten that year.
At 5 p.m., the door opens and the entry goddess whisks the salivating souls inside and into the coveted 42 seats. At 5:06 p.m., on a slow night, there’s a 45-minute wait. At 7:15, the wait is up to 2 1/2 hours. At 9, you’re told to come back around 10; they’ll seat you before midnight, and meanwhile, you can get olives and beer and listen to Tucson’s own Calexico playing on the stereo at the charming Bar Bianco next door.
There is no takeout. No reservations for small parties, no pepperoni, no apple-tinis, no booths and no hope of expansion. Ever. But from all around the world, the people come.
His faithful are piggy, always asking for more: more tables, more hours, more restaurants. He did give seconds in 2003, with Pane Bianco, a sandwich shop of dreams, and be grateful already, because there will never be another Pizzeria Bianco. He can’t give it, he says.
His hands are on every pizza that slides onto his tables. The menu offers just six pizzas, three salads and two appetizers. He grows his own herbs, designed his own oven, even painted some of the canvases on his walls. He starts work at 7 a.m., and stops around midnight. When he wants a vacation, as he does every August, the restaurant closes. He won’t eat caramels, because he feels that the candy is in charge, and not him.
His employees adore him, name their children after him. Farmers measure their arugula with a ruler for him, because he wants a certain size. He is a Renaissance thinker. He is huggy and dusty, eternally effervescing flour. It’s on his shoes, his nose, his hands and everyone they touch as he hops all over town in his little gray pickup. And he has a James Beard award, a big, buzzy one that important chefs scoffed over when Bianco won best chef of the Southwest in 2003. A pizzaiolo? Best chef? Oh, yes.
“If you’re just coming to eat, I’m sad,” says Bianco, 43, whose voice drips with the Bronx. What he hopes happens at his tables is that the magic he has spun with his pizzas will swirl about his guests, surprising them, and they’ll settle in for one of those moments when life glitters.
There will be Coltrane bouncing off the restaurant’s old red brick walls, the evening light will slide through the glass storefront, and there will be garden flowers presiding over the bar. And in the corner will be Bianco himself, silently spinning cheese onto dough, and shoveling it into the oven.
“It’s everything but it’s nothing, all at the same time,” Bianco says. “At the end of the day, you’re still just eating, it’s just dinner. But there’s the possibility that everything will happen during that time. . . . You just submit to wherever you are and want to have fun and enjoy each other’s company and use food as this common denominator, and that’s when it becomes important.”
Yes, he thinks about it that much.
“To call him a pizzaiolo is like saying Mark Twain had good penmanship,” says Ed Levine, the New York Times contributor who launched a thousand Pizzeria Bianco pilgrimages with his “best pizza” proclamation in the Times and in “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven” (Universe Publishing, 2005, $24.95). “It doesn’t speak to the human being that he is . . . It’s not pizza to him, it’s really his metaphor, his metaphor for what he is devoting his life to, which is connecting people to what he does.”
A SLICE OF TUCSON’S BEST
None of Tucson’s pizzaiolos has a James Beard award, but they do have their loyal followings. Here are some of their shops representing various styles.
BROOKLYN PIZZA 534 N. Fourth Ave., 622-6868
CANAL STREET PIZZARIA 5655 E. River Road, 615-2262
LAFERLITA’S PIZZA CAFE 446 N. Campbell Ave., Suite 100, 867-8145
MARIO’S PIZZA 3157 N. First Ave., 622-3668
ROCCOS LITTLE CHICAGO 2707 E. Broadway, 321-1860
VERO AMORE 3305 N. Swan Road, 325-4122
IF YOU GO
PIZZERIA BIANCO 623 E. Adams St. (Phoenix) (602) 258-8300