To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of pizza in America, aficionado Ed Levine ate nothing but pizza for an entire twelve month period, taking a representative pulse of the best from among thousands of pizza purveyors. His terrific tome, Pizza A Slice of Heaven, provides a definitive guide to a much-loved product that in its elemental form is simplicity itself–bread, cheese and whatever toppings a pizzaioli artisan might care to add. To the surprise of many, Levine declared the best pizza in America (and the world, for that matter) to be made in the unlikely town of Phoenix, Arizona where the intensely brilliant Chris Bianco plies his trade as no other.
Before a business trip to Phoenix in 2002, I learned that a writer for Travel & Leisure magazine definitively proclaimed Pizzeria Bianco as “the best place in America for pizza.” I also read that in its 1998 edition, Zagat’s respondents rated Pizzeria Bianco the top restaurant in Phoenix with a lofty rating of 29. Despite these proclamations, I couldn’t accept that a pizza could possibly be that good. The impunity of all these blasphemers to place on the loftiest pedestal, a pizza crafted in the culinary wasteland of Phoenix, Arizona of all places!
As if validating a Pygmalian effect (a self-fulfilling prophecy that essentially says you get what you expect), I wasn’t as enamored during my inaugural visit to Pizzeria Bianco as its legion of fans–fans I thought to be deluded (here I was, Bob Newhart in a world of Daryls and Larrys). Not only did the spangled restaurant fail to live up to its billing, it wasn’t, in my estimation, even as good as some local wood-oven pizzerias.
My disappointment started with an appetizer called speidini in which skewers of Prosciutto de Parma are wrapped around Italian Fontina (a straw-colored Italian cheese with a soft flesh and a mild, delicate flavor) and served warm. It was much too salty for my taste, a consequence of very strong (and very authentic) Prosciutto. This antecedent to my pizza was accompanied by a wonderful crusty bread served with extra virgin olive oil.
The pizza which introduced me to the magic of Chris Bianco was the “Wise Guy,” a twelve-inch, thin-crusted, white (no tomato sauce) pizza with pecan wood roasted onion, house-smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage. Only the mozzarella made an impression thanks to its creaminess and pliable texture. Perhaps an unconscious desire not to succumb to mass hysteria would still not let me accept that perhaps, I was truly tasting greatness–yet, inexplicably this pizza left an indelible impression on my mind and I knew a return visit was inevitable.
Three years elapsed before my second visit, but rather than approach it with an admittedly preset opinion, I was determined that tabula rasa (a blank slate), not a desire to prove everyone else wrong, would dictate my ultimate impression. Count me among the believers! My second meal was an epiphany–a revelation that Pizzeria Bianco just might be the best pizza restaurant in the world. For my penance, I should say 5,000 “Hail Chris Biancos” as I sorrowfully rue the wasted opportunities for multiple visits.
My turnaround started with a salad of homemade mozzarella, local tomato and basil with extra virgin olive oil. The mozzarella was smoked to absolute perfection with a taste that left me wondering if I had just experienced the best mozzarella in my 47 years of fromage fanaticism. The flavor combination of fresh basil, garden fresh tomatoes and that trademark virgin olive oil made for a tremendous antecedent to what I hoped would be a better pizza than I first experienced in 2002.
Rather than risk another Wise Guy, I opted for the Rosa, another white pizza–a gem made with red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rosemary and Arizona pistachios. Let me say unequivocally that it was one of the two or three best pizzas I’ve ever had–at least the equal of some the very best pizzas of my youth in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. The crust, although thin, is substantial enough to support the high-quality ingredients with which Bianco tops his creations. It is crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside–a masterful canvas for a masterpiece by a true maestro.
During both my visits, I arrived within seconds after the restaurant opened and within minutes, the small red-brick structure (built in 1929) had people waiting to come in. Situated in the historic Heritage and Science square, Pizzeria Bianco is not only loved by the masses, but by this once skeptical “doubting Thomas” who has seen the light of a wood-burning oven which crafts the best pizza in America, perhaps the world.
623 East Adams Street
LATEST VISIT: 27 October 2005
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: The Rosa; Mozzarella Salad