When she lived in Tucson, Arizona Republic dining critic Andi Berlin would drive nearly two hours to Phoenix to enjoy foods that can’t be found anywhere else in Arizona. One of the five held such sway over her that she actually moved to the Valley of the Sun so that she could enjoy it more often. Now that’s a gastronome after my own heart! Among the cinquefoil restaurants was Pane Bianco, whose sandwiches Andi says “are so perfect that they’ve achieved cult status.” Perfect sandwiches! Hmm, that’s a good reason to relocate and maybe the reason the Phoenix real estate market is among the nation’s top 10 hottest markets.
During dozens of trips to Phoenix over my eighteen-year tenure at Intel, I would have described Phoenix as a culinary wasteland. That’s based largely on well-intentioned colleagues taking me to their favorite restaurants–usually chains that hadn’t made their way to the Land of Enchantment or worse, Arizona-style Mexican restaurants. There were exceptions, of course, but those were few and far in between and in every case, those few were restaurants I discovered myself, usually on my way to the airport. To abet my culinary explorations, I would actually schedule a late flight back to Albuquerque so I could visit restaurants my colleagues would probably never take me to.
Among the Forrest Fenn caliber treasure troves I discovered on my circuitous route to the Sky Harbor was Pane Bianco, the very same transformative sandwich shop with which Andi Berlin is enamored. Another world-class discovery was Pizzeria Bianco, a prolific purveyor of the world’s favorite pie. In his magnificent tome Pizza: A Slice of Heaven James Beard Award-Winning Author Ed Levine declared the best pizza in America (and the world, for that matter) to be made not in Italy, New York City or Chicago, but in Phoenix where the incomparably brilliant Chris Bianco plies his trade as no other.
It should come as absolutely no surprise that the world’s premier pizzaioli also creates sandwiches that are the equal of his pizza. What might surprise you is that the James Beard Award-Winning Chef doesn’t create his sandwiches–each of which would be considered any other sandwich-maker’s chef-d’oeuvre–on an array of different breads. At Pane Bianco, only one type of bread is used in the construction of most of its sumptuous sandwiches–a split focaccia. In its list of the Best Sandwich Shops in America, Thrillist describes the focaccia as “boy what a bread it is — a focaccia that’s crispy and glistening with olive oil on the outside, pillow-soft on the inside.”
My inaugural foray to the Central Phoenix home of Pane Bianco transpired in 2008. It took me fourteen years to return–not because I didn’t buy into the Chris Bianco mystique–but because at the time of my maiden visit Pane Bianco didn’t offer sit-down service. A number of east-facing (toward the midday sun) outdoor picnic tables provided the only seating option. Even in March, if shade is nowhere to be found, al fresco dining in Phoenix can be tortuous. For years, my memories of on an unseasonably hot (doesn’t it ever get just “warm” in Phoenix) day was the prevalent memory of my visit. Ditto for my two visits to Pizzeria Bianco when shade’s absence subjected me to infernal heat.
Maybe I should have read the Arizona Republic more often. In 2012, Pane expanded from a takeout sandwich shop into a full service restaurant with a beautiful new dining room. Crap, I wasted fourteen years! In May, 2022, I finally introduced my Kim to sandwich utopia. She forgave me…barely…for not having done so sooner. There are two entrances to Pane Bianco. One will take you directly to the dining room. Take the other entrance where the creativity takes place. The cynosure of this room is a wood-burning oven (made of industrial steel, not brick) from which transcendent aromas emanate. A steady stream of savvy Phoenicians step into this room to get their sandwich fix. Loaves of freshly baked bread are also purchased by the armful–until the restaurant runs out (which may be early). You can also purchase bottles of imported olive oil and other specialty products. I could live in this room!
The dining room is a beautiful space esthetically, but what it does in arousing your olfactory senses is almost pornographic. Arrive hungry and involuntary salivation will probably ensue. Pane Bianco is truly a feast for the senses and that’s even before you take your first bite. Scrawled on a slate board in the dining room is the sandwich menu which reads like a great novel. Make sure to inquire about the daily changing market sandwich, one of the many ways in which Pane Bianco “experiments” with ingredient combinations–both in final presentation and in its construction.
Christ Bianco admitted as such in an interview with Phoenix New Times: “Pane Bianco provides an avenue for some things we bring in from our farmers and ranchers, some of the things we can have fun with and experiment on.” It’s a carte blanch approach which means nothing–from different types of flour to pork pulled from an entire pig–is off-limits. Every item on the menu is made and served with fresh, local ingredients sourced from trusted local farms and ranches–where scrupulous practices ensure pristine ingredients. Quality ingredients are telling and the Bianco family of restaurants uses only the best.
In 2006, author Ed Levine who proclaimed Pizzeria Bianco the “best in the world,” wrote an article entitled “22 Sandwiches That Will Change Your Life” for Details magazine. One of the sandwiches making this sacrosanct list was Pane Bianco’s masterpiece of housemade mozzarella, local tomato and basil. If you’ve ever had Bianco’s mozzarella, you can understand how such a simple sandwich could make such an exclusive list. By the way, Levine is a New Yorker so if you think two hours is a long way to come for a Pane Bianco sandwich, imagine traveling from the Big Apple.
6 May 2022: My Kim’s first visit sandwich, the Prosciutto San Daniele showcased that magnificent mozzarella in a three-way marriage with basil and that incomparable prosciutto. The homemade mozzarella is pulled and stretched to an optimum consistency that ensures softness and suppleness. It’s rich and creamy and maybe best of all, served in thick slices. It certainly doesn’t get lost in the sandwich. Neither does the prosciutto which is sliced into pepperoni-thin shards. Prosciutto San Daniele has a perfect balance between sweet and salty. It’s an exceptional and unique prosciutto which has become our favorite type of prosciutto. Of course, the wood-fired split focaccia places the sandwich in rarefied air. The sandwich is served with a spectacular salad which would have made a perfect meal by itself.
12 March 2008: It bears repeating that the canvass for each sandwich is a crisp, wood-fired focaccia with a crunchy rim. It is neither too thin nor too thick, the perfect size so that it complements rather than dominates the wonderful flavors of each sandwich. Quite simply, this is–by far–the best panini bread I have ever had. The sandwiches are elemental in their composition. Each is constructed of only a few ingredients, but the way those ingredients coalesce in flavor is a harmonious melding. Every bite brings with it the sensation of tasting every nuance and feature of every ingredient. Take, for example, the Soppressata with Aged Provolone & Roasted Peppers. The Soppressata, a Tuscan salami made from choice cuts of cured-dry pork and flavored with black peppercorns, is fabulous–an exemplar of porcine perfection. Coarsely ground, it is sliced just thick enough to showcase its intense flavor. The aged provolone is semi-hard with a tangy sharpness turophiles like me appreciate. The roasted peppers retain the acrid smokiness that comes from being roasted to absolute perfection. This is a sandwich about which songs should be composed.
6 May 2022: Even better, if that’s possible is the Italian Combo (spicy Soppressata, Mortadella, Coppa, Provolone, Giardiniera on country loaf), the only sandwich on the menu not made on that transcendent focaccia. We’ve had dozens of Italian Combos and so-called Italian Sandwiches. Most rate very good to excellent. Only two are outstanding–the Caputo from Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli in Salt Lake City and the Italian Combo at Pane Bianco. Though they’re entirely different, they both capture the essence of Italian sandwich construction showcased in the perfect bread to meats to condiments ratio–a sandwich architecture as flawless as Michelangelo’s Pieta. The country loaf proved the equal of the fabulous focaccia as a worthy canvas for a masterpiece.
12 March 2008: While it seems that the tuna on every tuna sandwich in America includes mayonnaise, Pane Bianco provides a pleasant departure from the norm. The tuna is imported from Portugal and is considered by Chris Bianco to be the best in the world. Having consumed hundreds of tuna sandwiches crafted from just caught tuna in many Massachusetts seaports, I consider myself quite the tuna expert. The tuna at Pane Bianco lives up to its billing. It may not have quite the “just off the boat” freshness I loved in Massachusetts, but it is fresh and delicious with a surprisingly smooth texture considering it isn’t bound by mayo. As with the Soppressata sandwich, there is no one prevalent flavor in Bianco’s tuna sandwich. Aside from tuna, it is constructed of finely chopped red onion, the most luminous shade of green arugula you’ll ever see and Gaeta olives. It is seasoned with lemon and perhaps Balsamic vinegar to give it a tangy taste so unlike any tuna sandwich I’ve had. It is fabulous!
6 May 2022: Your humble blogger not having a sandwich in one of the world’s foremost sandwich shops (don’t read my review of Butcher & Bee) is about as likely as something actually being built back better. That said, if it were possible to ever tire of sandwiches, I can easily see visiting Pane Bianco for salads. Yes, salads! There are seven on the menu, but it may be a while before my Kim and I would order something other than the Albacore Tuna Salad (local greens, red onion, celery, raisins, olives, tomato). Read that ingredient list again and you’ll probably agree there’s nothing extraordinary about the composition of this captivating salad yet it completely ensnared our affections. Not even in Massachusetts did I have a tuna salad this good! Describing its flavor profile is a challenge. It’s so easy to ascribe the quality of brininess to tuna but this tuna salad was far more than that. It was a balance of flavors–everything from sweet to savory to yes, briny. No one flavor profile was dominant. As with everything Chris Bianco creates, it’s a few simple ingredients coalescing perfectly to wow your taste buds
6 May 2022: It’s been well established that Chris Bianco is peerless in the pizza arena. Though my last visit to Pizzeria Bianco may have transpired in 2005, my mind’s taste buds can still taste that wood-fired, life-changing masterpiece. One of the significant changes made since my previous visit four-hundred years ago was the addition of two pizzas (two slices per order): pizza al taglio (high-rise focaccia, Italian cheese, Bianco tomato sauce, basil) and market taglio (high-rise focaccia, pepperoni). My Kim, perhaps the only person under spacious skies who doesn’t like pepperoni) had the former. The pepperoni is reminiscent of the cup-and-char pepperoni used in Buffalo-style pizza and is quite good. Every aspect of these fabulous focaccia-based slices was memorable. In fact, I may prefer these slices to the whole pies from Pizzeria Bianco. Chris Bianco should be beatified and canonized Patron Saint of Pizza.
6 May 2022: Yet another significant change is the addition of a dessert menu: vanilla bean rice pudding, flourless chocolate cake with vanilla whip, housemade bagged cookies (chocolate or triple ginger), Italian ice (chocolate or nutmeg) and a daily market dessert. Just our luck the market dessert of the day during our visit was a Boston cream cake. Having introduced my Kim to Boston cream pie in the city for which it’s named, I was surprised to hear her exclaim Pane Bianco’s rendition is better. In fact, she proclaimed it the best dessert she had during our eight day stay in the Phoenix area. The chocolate ganache that tops this cake is absolutely worth having to work off with four or five hours on an elliptical. The light, fluffy “sponge” cake includes two layers of decadent creamy vanilla-flavored custard as good as you’ll find anywhere.
If my Kim and I ever decide to move to Phoenix, it might be primarily because the lure of a sandwich from Pane Bianco was just too much to resist. In my 39 years on this Earth I’ve had some of the very best sandwiches in this country (and in Europe). Pane Bianco’s sandwiches rank among the top five.
LATEST VISIT: 6 May 2022
1st VISIT: 12 March 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Soppressata with Aged Provolone & Roasted Peppers; Tuna with Red Onion, Gaeta Olives, Lemon & Arugula; Boston Cream Cake; Albacore Tuna Salad; Market Taglio; Italian Combo; Prosciutto San Daniele,