PHOENIX — In 12 years manning the wood-burning oven at Pizzeria Bianco, Chris Bianco has become one of America's most famous pizzaioli. His Neapolitan-style pizzas are regarded as some of the finest anywhere, and the result is a regular two-hour wait at the door of his 43-seat Phoenix restaurant. From Tuesday through Saturday, Pizzeria Bianco does five turns a night, and each year it generates seven figures in revenue.
At 44, he finds the attention — from winning the James Beard Award in 2004 for the Best Chef in the Southwest, to praise in multiple books on pizza, to a recent visit from the Oprah Winfrey show — humbling but unnecessary. Bianco doesn't view himself as a celebrity chef; the accolades can go to someone else, he says, "just let me do my thing, and that's make pizza for you." (Read also: Who's Who: Chris Bianco
In November, PizzaMarketplace talked to Bianco about the challenge and the pleasure of running one of the nation's best-regarded pizzerias.
PizzaMarketplace: Pizzeria Bianco has become a bit of a U.S. pizza shrine, and it's drawing a fair share of pilgrims. What do you think about all the attention?
Chris Bianco: People are so digging for this Holy Grail, this magic with pizza. Some people get it and like what I do. Others wait forever outside Bianco, they're tired and hungry when they get in, and then they don't think it's worth it. I always go back to this: The best pizza is the one you like best, the one that makes sense to you.
Aren't some better
An hour before the door opens, customers are waiting to get inside Pizzeria Bianco.
All photos by Steve Coomes
Bianco: This has nothing to do with mine being better than anyone else's. I've always just wanted to make something. If people dug it, then fine. For me, it's this: I want to make something for you. That's what I get out of it. Understand?
PM: Surely not all the praise is a bad thing.
Bianco: Early on, I needed and wanted the respect of my peers, people who knew what I went through to get here. I didn't care how many TV shows loved it, how many grandmas loved it, I needed the respect of the people who've been in the trenches and have done it.
PM: Name a peer of yours you respect.
Bianco: Anthony Mangieri (pizzaiolo at Una Pizza Napolitana in Manhattan) and I talk every now and then. He's doing something important there.
There's only Italian or Neapolitan pizza in one place: Naples. Anything off of that dirt is an inspiration of that. When we realize and understand that, we can then start really appreciating other pizza from the perspective of whether it's good within that context. What Anthony does is give people a true understanding of what it's about: flatbread cooked near a fire.
You can talk about truffles and all this crazy stuff ... well, he's doing something that leaves no place to hide. When you do Margheritas and marinaras, you have to go right to it and figure it out. He's doing some of the most important stuff that I've seen in a long time.
PM: Any secrets to really great pizza?
Bianco: The only magic I've ever found comes from repetition. You get it to a point that you understand each other's vulnerabilities: pizza understands yours and you understand its.
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Pizza's very forgiving if you know what you're doing, know the nuances of all its ingredients. Sometimes, no matter what you do, there'll be a twist. Your flour, your yeast, your starter, your biga, too much calcium in the water, something changes and you've got to adjust. Wherever it is that day, we coax it to be as close as possible to be where we want it to be.
PM: You said a moment ago, "You've got to burn a lot of pizzas to learn about them." I gather you mean you've got to be willing to fail to be great, right?
Bianco: (Laughs) In baseball, if you fail seven out of 10 times, you go to the Hall of Fame. But if you fail seven out of 10 times in pizza, you go to the poor house.
You know, I don't care what awards you've got or what picture you've got on the wall with Bono, it doesn't matter if tonight you don't nail it. And if you got it tonight, you sure as hell better be able to come back tomorrow and do it again or you've got trouble.
PM: Does it ever get boring to do the same thing every day?
Bianco: No. It never does.
PM: What keeps it exciting?
Bianco: I've never made a perfect pizza. There've been times when the stars are aligned and it's as close to perfection as I've ever made it, but never perfect.
But really, I wouldn't know perfection if it hit me over the head. Who has that barometer? How do you know other than your experience? If you say it's perfect, it is. It's right for you. I'm not there.
PM: You go to great lengths to find the right ingredients. Are they really that important?
Bianco: I don't care if you put s**t in a wood-burning oven, s**t's going to come right back out. Even with a nice brown patina on it, it's still s**t. Everything you do matters.
Do you still shop every day for your
Bianco and one other cook handle every order every night. The pizzeria feeds more than 200 people per shift.
Bianco: I used to, but now I've got enough long-term relationships with my farmers that they know what I want. It took a long time to get there. Now I'll go on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
PM: What are you looking for in your ingredients?
Bianco: Food has to be truthful. You want to be able to do something with food that's going to connect you to purpose and place.
PM: You talk a lot about living in the moment. Clearly, though, you need to be pretty organized to build a successful business.
Bianco: No one needs focus more than me. I'm the most scattered lunatic you'll ever see (laughs). But pizza demands a focus.
PM: Pizza has been pretty good to you, hasn't it?
Bianco: Pizza has been good to me. It's given me the opportunity to meet many of the people who are the most important in my life. Just the fact that someone wants your opinion because you make pizza is unbelievable to me.