Pizzeria Bianco – Phoenix, Arizona

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
Phoenix, AZ
(602) 258-8300

LATEST VISIT: 27 October 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Rosa; Mozzarella Salad

Cornish Pasty Company – Tempe, Arizona

There’s a European joke that uses stereotypes to deride British cooking, the most maligned cuisine in the world culinary stage. As the joke goes, in the European conception of heaven, the French are the chefs, the British are the police, the Germans are the engineers, and so forth, while in the European conception of Hell, the Germans are the police, the French are the engineers and the British are the chefs. Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than British cuisine.

While fish and chips are probably what most Americans would answer if asked what constitutes traditional British food, the truth is British food is as diverse as its many regions. During the three plus years we lived in England, we made the most of our opportunities to explore the mystical land of mystery and lore and experienced not only much of its renown pub grub, but classic high-end cuisine that is as good as any in America. At the pubs, we consumed many a ploughman’s lunch (consisting of crusty bread, various pickles, a wedge or two of local cheese and sometimes salad) and ate steak and kidney pudding (with a suet crust) like locally indigenous personnel (a MASH term that has remained on my lexicon).

During many a weekend sojourn to the appropriately sobriqueted “Land’s End” at the extreme southwestern tip of the British mainland, we dined on Cornish pasties (pronounced pass-tee), a type of pie originating in Cornwall in the 1200s. Baked by wives and mothers of tin miners when tin mining was prosperous, pasties were formed into a semicircular shape with a crimped edge along one side so the miners could hold onto them while eating. One end of the Pasty would usually contain a sweet filling which the wives would mark or initial so the miner wouldn’t eat his dessert first, while the other end would contain meat and vegetables. Today, traditional Cornish Pasties are filled with steak, potatoes, onions and swede (rutabaga).

The concept of a simple miner’s pie served in cosmopolitan Phoenix, Arizona might sound antithetical, but it’s a concept that appears to be taking off well. The Cornish Pasty Company is the brainchild of Dean Thomas, a native of Gunnislake, Cornwall, in England, who came to America five years ago to seek his fortune. His restaurant is situated on University Boulevard not far from Arizona State University, an institute of higher learning in which students want their dollars to stretch far and their meal portions to sate them for a long time. At the Cornish Pasty Company, a hearty and delicious meal can be had for a meager pittance.

The restaurant’s interior, dimly lit during evening hours, is striking with a long bar in which to imbibe imported libations, tiny tables and photographs on the black (or grey) walls of miners plying their arduous trade. Loud rock music (real rock, not the cacophonous noise played on the radio today) blares from a speaker system while the intoxicating aromas of sauces and ingredients waft gently toward incoming patrons who will be challenged to select just which pasty to partake of.

Aside from the traditional pasty (steak, potato, onion and rutabaga), a lengthy listing of options is available for patrons of all persuasions–Italian, Hispanic, Indian, Cajun, Greek, vegetarian and more. Shaped somewhat like a deflated football (the American kind), one pasty will make a meal even for the most robust of eaters. Aside from salads, there are no appetizers or sides on the menu. Several non-pasty sandwiches made on homemade bread and served with chips (the American kind) are available for the meat and potatoes Joes who don’t want to venture out of their sandwich comfort zone.

If “The Porky” is any indication, the Cornish Pasty Company will be the site of many future visits. This picture-perfect pasty featured a baked bread pocket stuffed with pork, sage, onion, apple and potato served with a side of red wine gravy. In true miner tradition, the pasty is meant to be eaten with your hands much as you’d eat a sub sandwich. What makes The Porky so tasty is the pronounced taste of sage which is liberally sprinkled on the other ingredients. The uniquely aromatic and fresh seasoning melds well with the other ingredients to fashion a memorable meal.

The menu also includes two dessert options, one of which you opt for if bananas are your fruit choice of the day and the other for diners who subscribe to the “apple a day” edict. The banana is but one component that makes the Banafee Pie a tantalizing sweet-tooth option. A Graham cracker crust is topped with caramel, sliced banana and whipped cream to create a memorable finish to a remarkable dining experience. The Cornish Pasty Company is here to stay!

Cornish Pasty Company
960 West University
Tempe, AZ
(480) 894-6261

LATEST VISIT: 25 October 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Porky; Banafee Pie

Lee’s Sandwiches – Chandler, Arizona

For years, the American viewing public has been subjected to the bombardment of the airwaves with the exploits of Jared. Once a corpulent fellow who weighed 425 pounds, Jared metamorphosed into a 190-pound shadow of his former self largely through a calorie reduction effort comprised principally of submarine sandwiches proffered by America’s most prolific sandwich chain. Many of us caloric overachievers regard those commercials with skepticism–not that Jared could lose so much much weight, but that any sane person could eat such a mediocre sandwich twice a day for an entire year.

I could understand it if Jared’s sandwich diet was comprised instead of banh mi, the unrivaled Vietnamese sandwich that surpasses any chain produced submarine sandwich in America. Banh mi are the culinary remnants of French colonialism in Vietnam, a marriage so to speak of French culinary modus operandi, Vietnamese resourcefulness and Chinese ingredients.

An outstanding banh mi sandwich combines sweet carrots; fresh cilantro; thinly sliced, cold cucumber; marinated slivers of daikon; fresh coriander and eye-watering jalapeno with such optional ingredients as sliced jicama, basil or mint leaves, onion and more. The banh mi also includes meat, but not a lot of it so as to detract from the freshness of the vegetables. The true banh mi can be served only on a slightly toasted and buttered baguettine (small baguette). While French baguettes can be used, true authenticity calls for Vietnamese baguettes in which rice flour is mixed in to create a bread with a lighter texture and crispier crust.

In the San Francisco area where I was first introduced to banh mi more than a decade ago, one of the most prolific practitioners in the fine art of crafting a great banh mi is a San Jose based chain called Lee’s Sandwiches. With a cult following that crosses cultural barriers, Lee’s launched its 25th restaurant in 2005, the first outside of California in Chandler, Arizona. The 8,000 square foot Chandler superstore is the second largest in Lee’s fleet and the first of ten Phoenix area restaurants planned.

Lee’s expansive Chandler operation bakes fresh ten-inch baguettes in-house every 30 minutes. The fragrance of baking bread as you approach the restaurant is like the siren’s call of Lorelei, the beautiful young maiden whom men could not resist. The aromatic allure is irresistible. During lunch hour, patrons queue nine or ten deep to place their orders from among the menu’s tempting listing of both Vietnamese and traditional Euro-American sandwiches, all served on ten-inch baguettes. The menu also includes homemade ice cream, Vietnamese spring rolls, pastries, croissant sandwiches and fruit smoothies.

The sandwich menu is formidable with 38 sensational sandwich selections from which to choose, none of which will put a substantial dent on your wallet. The grilled pork sandwich exemplifies all that’s great about Lee’s–the ingredients (house mayonnaise, house pickle (daikon and carrot), green chili, cilantro, onion, salt, pepper and soy sauce) bulge out of the fresh, toasty warm baguette. Ten inches of sandwich in which neither ingredients nor bread overwhelm the other make for an outstanding sandwich experience.

Lee’s spring rolls come two to an order and are six by one inches of julienned vegetables, sprigs of fresh mint and shrimp encased in thin, transparent wrappers. The spring rolls are served with a more than passable peanut sauce.

The most refreshing way to wash down a meal at Lee’s is with a smoothie, varieties of which are available for every taste preference: avocado, banana, cantaloupe, carrot, cranberry, green bean, honeydew, Jack fruit, lynchee, mango, mocha, orange banana, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, raspberry, red bean, sapodilla, strawberry, soursop, taro and even durian, the fruit virtually no person of western birth seems to like.

Lee’s Sandwiches
1901 West Warner Road
Chandler, AZ
(480) 855-1778

LATEST VISIT: 25 October 2005
COST: $$
BEST BET: Grilled Pork Banh Mi; Honey Dew Smoothie; Spring Rolls

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