AMERICAN BEAUTY

An Evening at Pizzeria Bianco with Chris Bianco and His ‘Rosa’ Pizza {recipe}

When food writer Elliott Shaffner and her photographer Fred Turko decided to move across the country from Los Angeles to a new life in Richmond, Virginia, they took the opportunity to make a once-in-a-lifetime road trip of it. As any food writer+photographer couple would, they designed the majority of their coast-to-coast route as a culinary journey. Their plan: to taste each state on their map and absorb what makes up this country’s past, present and future through its food.

TasteSpotting is lucky enough to peek into the details of Elliott and Fred’s first stop out of LA: Phoenix, Arizona.
Pizzeria Bianco - Rosa Pizza

Our first stop was Arizona. Let me be more specific: our first stop was to eat pizza in Phoenix, Arizona, where we were to meet the legendary Chris Bianco, creator of what is purported to be the greatest pizza on Earth outside of Italy.

I had been to Pizzeria Bianco once before and, yes, it was special.
Pizzeria Bianco - sign
To be clear, I am in no way a “pizza person,” per se. I don’t take sides on Chicago-style versus New York-style, or any of that. I appreciate both. I appreciate food with depth, history, beauty and love. And I believe that it can be found in both the finest restaurants and the roadside stands. Chris Bianco’s food has all of it. And after my time in Phoenix, about sixteen hours to be exact, after meeting the entire Bianco family and touring two of Chris’s restaurants, I understand how and why.
Pizzeria Bianco - wood burning pizza oven
We met Chris at his second Pizzeria Bianco location. All apprehension about meeting “the Chris Bianco” melted away as we greeted each other with big smiles and bigger hugs as he ushered us inside. After a quick tour of the kitchen, poking our heads in to see the wood-burning oven, and an introduction to his parents who were sitting at a table by the door, Chris showed us to our table.

We sat down in the back corner of the dining room, a perfect spot with a bird’s eye view of the entire restaurant which was filled with paintings by his father and memories of Chris’s youth. Everything in the room had meaning to him. He pointed to a large wall covered with an almost antebellum looking wallpaper and stated, “I’ve always wanted a whole wall covered in fancy wallpaper with nothing on it.”

And then he sat down with us.
Chris Bianco at he table

ALL IN THE FAMILY

pane bianco bread and marco bianco, rose label rose wine
Chris had fresh bread with a beautiful finishing oil and a bottle of  local wine brought to the table for the three of us to share. The bread had been prepared perfectly that day by his brother Marco. The label on the bottle of rosé was from a painting of a rose his father, Leo, painted for his mother after they were married. We had planned to order most everything on the menu, but after that introduction, we left the rest of the meal in Chris’s hands.
Pizzeria Bianco - Antipasti plate

The first plate to appear was the Antipasti, with eggplant caponata, wood roasted broccoli, fried green tomatoes topped with fresh ricotta, golden beets sprinkled with local pistachios, a bean salad, warm coppa and a bite of young Parmesan.

Fred has pretty much one dislike in the food world: eggplant. Try as I may, I can’t get him to eat it. When I looked over toward him, I noticed Fred was scraping every last morsel of Chris’s eggplant caponata off of that plate. The entire dish provided warmth, cool, crunch, soft, salt, sweet, acid, dairy, fruit, veggie and meat. It was fresh, clean and bright; the perfect palate opener for all that was to come.

At this point another bottle of wine appeared at the table. This was also local, a chardonnay/malvasia, which was cool, smooth and subtle and a perfect pairing for the cornucopia of elements on the antipasti plate.

PHOENIX SON

While we were doing a fair amount of eating and drinking, Fred and I were doing an even greater amount of listening. It only takes a few moments – if that – to see that Chris has a lot of thoughts, memories, stories and points of significance, relevance and beauty in his brain. The only struggle is to try to stay with his almost frenetic pace with stories and train of thought.

When asked, why Phoenix? His initial answer was, “I was driving across the country from the Bronx to California and I ran out of gas.”

When the question was revisited later his answer was, “I’m a contrarian. I can make something in Phoenix.”

Even later, another answer was, “There are actually places to park here.”

And park in Phoenix he did.

From the original Pizzeria Bianco opening in 1987 to the move to its now famous location in 1996, to Bar Bianco, to Pane Bianco, to the new Trattoria Bianco, to his partnership with Jamie Oliver and their four locations of Union Jacks in London and, whether is was no gas, being contrary or wanting parking, I should say Chris Bianco and the universe have done each other right.

A ROSA IS A ROSA IS A ROSA

At this point in the meal Chris excused himself for a brief moment to run off to the kitchen. As I turned to Fred to marvel over our good fortune and acknowledge just how extraordinary everything was so far, Chris reappeared with pizza in hand. Red onions, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, and pistachios.

“This,” he said, “is the Rosa,” named for the rosemary.

Pizzeria Bianco - Rosa Pizza

Chris was going to drive to Los Angeles the next morning to be a part of the LA Loves Alex’s Lemonade charity food event and this, The Rosa, was the pie he would be making and serving. The pizza is simple, deceptively so, but it had depth. Sharp, tangy cheese, the bite of the super thinly sliced red onion, the warm, comforting rosemary and the little salty, crunchy bites of the pistachios on top of the very thin, perfectly baked pizza dough. All topped with a light drizzle of olive oil.

Of course, this was the perfect time to ask about the pizza.

AMERICAN BEAUTY

Why?… How?… Pizza?… So good? I couldn’t even find the right way to phrase the question, but it didn’t matter. He knew the answer.

“I’m not necessarily a lover of food. You either love or you don’t love. I love everything. Everything I do, I do with love.”

Chris Bianco drinking wine

As I looked back around the room, I saw his mom and dad, and maybe an uncle and aunt, sitting at a table. I remembered tasting a cookie in the kitchen that his mom brought in for the restaurant, her recipe board up by the front, the paintings, the wallpaper, the food. And I got it. I felt like I was watching Wes Bentley with the floating plastic bag in the movie American Beauty.

BEAUTY IN THE FEAST

Another bottle, also local, a grenache, showed up right as Chris darted back to the kitchen again. I was trying so hard to retain everything, but there was no way I was going to record this. Mostly I wanted to inhale it, enjoy it, absorb every bite, every sip and every word. This felt important. It felt so valid and relevant.

Pizzeria Bianco - gnocchi en brodo

And suddenly Chris appeared again with a plate of Gnocchi and Lobster Mushrooms en Brodo. This was not on the menu. Gnocchi is not usually a dish that I order. I tend to find it a bit cloying. But that has all changed. This was like the wind. The brodo, or broth, was like a song, fragrant, rich and as light as a cloud. The gnocchi were seared a light brown, giving each bite a subtle crisp texture, adding the complexity. The mushrooms added a wonderful earthiness that elevated the dish to something equally unearthly.
Pizzeria Bianco - braised lamb neck
Our final savory dish of the night was Braised Lamb Neck with Chickpeas, Tuscan Kale, Mint, Olives and Grilled Lemon. Rich, decadent, gamey, spoon-tender lamb with fresh, vibrant mint and bright green kale this was plated with the care he might have used to tuck a baby into bed. And again, just like that antipasti plate, he managed to incorporate every texture, color and flavor, perfectly balanced, all on one plate, and in one glorious dish. I’m pretty sure we had this with a bottle of local cabernet sauvignon/tempranillo, which was as big and bold and confident as our food.

FLOUR CHILD

We listened to Chris tell us about his own tomatoes, all the local produce, local oils, the wheat and grains he grows, and his grain mill. He mills his own flour for his breads and pizzas and cornmeal for his polenta. He has become as integral part of his land and his environs as it has been to him. His brother Marco stopped by the table and talked about his bread, picking up right where Chris left off.

Again, beauty.

Again, love.

Hayden Flour Mills flour from Chris Bianco

SUB ROSA

Throughout the evening, the hours and hours we all sat together at the table, we talked and listened and joked and thought. Chris has an extraordinary brain and it seems never to stop working.

By the time dessert appeared, we were getting into some fun, playful territory – anecdotes, stories from the past, wild nights with other chefs we all know and love (doing some salty things I shan’t share with you here).

And then it was late. Full of food, wine and words, we parted as we met, with big smiles and bigger hugs.

And then Chris said, “Hey, meet me tomorrow morning at Pane Bianco and I’ll show you the bakery and the mill. We’ll have coffee before I head out to LA.”

And we did. And that, my friends, is a story I will save for next time.

GETTING TO THE POINT(Y END)

I’ve thought a lot about our evening with Chris and his family, in what I would consider to be his Bronx home that he has recreated in Phoenix. It was an unforgettable night with tremendously unforgettable food. And there was Chris, with such personality, such force. Chris is a bit hard to corral, and very “shiny penny” which imbues him with an undeniable charm, and a passion that comes through within moments of meeting him. He is at once in tune with pragmatic and cosmic significance of things, each element in his world a symbol.
Chris Bianco
So…why pizza?

Chris told us a story about being eight years old and having that box of pizza. It was his. He could take it with him. He could hold it and have it. He could share it if he wanted. His family was four people. “Eight slices. It all made sense.” One circle making up eight triangles.

“The pointy end is where you start, and the crust is where you know you’re done. It’s like a curb, you know? The triangle, the pie slice, is one of the greatest symbols of all time.” And though Chris is a self-proclaimed contrarian, he still has to have that pointy end first.

Chris reminds me of a boy chasing a balloon down the street, only to encounter a butterfly on a stop sign following it as it flutters away leading him into a field of deer playing. It seems like a series of non sequiturs if you think the objective was to retrieve the balloon, but when you realize the purpose was to absorb the beauty in front of you it all makes sense.

And with one bite of the pointy end of his pizza Rosa, it will make sense to you as well.

Pizzeria Bianco Shaping Pizza

Chris Bianco’s Pizza Rosa {recipe}

makes 4 pizzas

INGREDIENTS

Pizza Dough Ingredients

2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (one ¼-ounce envelope)
2 cups warm water (105°F to 115°F)
5 to 5½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting, preferably organic
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil, for bowl

Pizza Toppings

6 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (1½ cups)
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon rosemary
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted raw pistachios, coarsely chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

DIRECTIONS

MAKE PIZZA DOUGH: Dissolve yeast in warm water in a large bowl and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in 3 cups flour and the salt, stirring until smooth. Stir in an additional 2 cups flour; continue adding flour (up to 1/2 cup), 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring until dough comes away from bowl but is still sticky.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead with lightly floured hands. Start by slapping the dough onto the counter, pulling it toward you with one hand and pushing it away from you with the other. Fold the dough back over itself (use a bench scraper or a wide knife to help scrape dough from surface). Repeat until it’s easier to handle, about 10 times. Finish kneading normally until dough is smooth, elastic, and soft, but a little tacky, about 10 minutes.

Shape dough into a ball and transfer to a lightly oiled bowl; turn to coat. Cover with plastic, and let rise in a warm place until it doubles in volume, 3 hours. Press it with your finger to see if it’s done; an indent should remain.

MAKE PIZZA: Place a pizza stone (available at most kitchen supply stores) on floor of gas oven (remove racks) or bottom rack of electric oven. Preheat oven to at least 500 degrees for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, scrape dough out of the bowl onto floured surface, and cut it into 4 pieces. Shape into balls. Dust with flour, and cover with plastic. Let rest, 20 to 30 minutes, allowing dough to relax and almost double.

Holding top edge of 1 dough ball in both hands, let bottom edge touch work surface (refrigerate remaining balls). Carefully move hands around edge to form a circle, as if turning a wheel. Hold dough on back of your hand, letting its weight stretch it into a 12-inch round. Transfer dough to a lightly floured pizza peel (or an inverted baking sheet). Press out edges using your fingers. Jerk peel; if dough sticks, lift, and dust more flour underneath.

Spread one-third of the cheese on top, leaving a half-inch border all around. Lightly press the cheese into the dough. Top with one-third of both the onion and the rosemary.

Slide the pizza onto the stone and bake for about 4 minutes, until lightly golden and bubbling. Carefully sprinkle one-third of the pistachios over the pizza and bake for 2 minutes longer, until the crust is browned and the onions are very soft. Slide the pizza onto a work surface. Drizzle with olive oil, cut into wedges and serve.

Repeat with the remaining dough and toppings.

story by Elliott Shaffner, photographs by Fred Turko
recipe by Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco
For more about Elliott and Fred’s entire trip and beyond, please check out their website, F for Food.

by Features Editor on September 3, 2014 · 0 comments

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