I bagged the elephant.
The big one didn’t get away.
Driving from Scottsdale toward downtown Phoenix, I pulled into the Bianco parking lot at about 3:50pm. I noticed a few workers milling about out front putting up umbrellas and basically getting the place ready for opening. At the urging of my wife, we decided it was a little too early to begin our vigil until Bianco opened at 5pm so we pulled out and began driving around the baseball stadium area when we decided to call Pizzeria Bianco on the cell phone hoping to confirm a few facts. Minor facts such as if they were actually going to be open tonight. The web site indicated they just reopened from a two week vacation so I felt lucky. Now mind you, it has been the better part of two years that I have been attempting to sit down with Chris and talk pizza. Each and every time either they have been closed or I was unable to break away from the golden handcuffs of working for a living to make a connection.
The voice on the other end of the line answered with a heavy NY accent. My mind began racing with the possibilities. Could it be Chris? I introduced myself and asked with whom was I speaking. I might have been lucky with Bianco being open but I wasn’t going to be win-the-lottery type lucky. The Bronx tainted voice bellowed “Mark.” I inquired if he was Chris’s brother and he enthusiastically replied yes.
So I attempted to be interested in speaking with Mark while trying to figure out a well intentioned way to speak with his brother. I asked questions such as what time the wine bar opened (4:05pm) and if it was all right to park in the super small parking lot (yes) next to the restaurant or if that was reserved. He quickly saw through my ruse and said that Chris would be working tonight and wouldn’t be able speak with me, take time out to answer any questions, nor would I be allowed to interfere with the maestro once he began working the oven. Not no way, not no how.
I then asked him if he was the one out front putting up the umbrella and he replied yes and he asked me if I was the guy in the car who pulled out of the parking lot. We both got a hearty chuckle out of the exchange but truth be told I felt like I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz because I had traveled all the way from Tampa to get over the pizza rainbow and I was being turned down by the guard at the front door to Oz. No one gets to see the Wizard. Not no way, not no how. Truer words could not have been spoken. Determined to succeed, I continued honoring Mark with respectful discourse and the next thing I know he utters “hold the line.” After what seemed like an eternity, another more heavily accented voice announced “this is Chris, how may I help you.”
In the back of my mind I knew Chris was running out of time before he would inevitably be pulled into the mechanics of opening so I had to get to him and ask the most elegant question I could think of. One which would intrigue Chris to the point of sitting down with me instead of blowing me off and starting his opening routine. What was the one question you ask?
Well, before I answer that question I would like to hear from each of you as to what question you would have asked Chris if you were in my situation. Real mind burner isn’t it? If you had one question to ask the guy who won the Frank Beard award what would it be?
Mine turned out to be this; “What style of pizza are you trying to make Chris? I can’t seem to figure it out from everything I’ve read. It seems to have elements of Neapolitan and NY style but it doesn’t seem to conform to any known definition in the traditional sense.” That really rang his bell and directed the conversation away from hydration percentages and ingredient names into the realm of why he does what he does. I pointed my rental car back to Pizzeria Bianco and hauled you know what.
As we got closer to Bianco's, I observed a man standing in the parking lot and noticed he was speaking on his cell phone. Guessing it was Chris, I quickly jumped out of my car and walked up to him and said “Chris, I’m Peter Taylor. What do you say, should we continue this conversation in person?” We laughed, turned off the cells and turned on the passion. Tons of pizza passion. With both of us being Italian, our arms were flailing wildly in the air and passersby must surely have thought we were in some kind of argument but frankly we both loved every minute of it. I know I have never encountered another who loves pizza more than I do but I met my match with Chris. We then moved off to the side of his building, where his fresh herbs were being grown, and continued for another 30 minutes or so until we covered every conceivable aspect of pizza making we could both think of.
Chris has a most interesting perspective on pizza. It all revolves around never being able to master pizza. No matter how good one becomes, no matter how expensive the ingredients are, Chris claims you must submit yourself to the vagaries of pizza making and just accept your work effort as being valid but not necessarily being the same every day. His goal is to produce the best that he can do on a certain day. He even went on to describe his position by stating the pies he makes at 5pm are entirely different from the ones he makes at 9pm on the same day. He is powerless to control it and no matter how precise one follows a recipe, you might as well be honest with yourself and submit to the truth that there are just too many variables which impact pizza. He uttered the phrase “you must submit to the pizza” until he felt certain I got his intended meaning.
Then he dropped a pebble on my head which turned out to be a boulder. It is the thing which makes Chris unique in the world of pizza. He feels that pizza is constantly dying. Funny use of words isn’t it? It is the basic principle as to why he will not sell pizza to go. Pizza dies likes humans. From the moment it hits the plate it is rapidly growing old. Here is what he means; the flour which is just milled from wheat and delivered the same day to his store is naturally fresher than flour which has been sitting say on the shelf for a few weeks. The arugula which was picked at 9am in the morning is dying more and more as time passes by. It tastes different at 5pm than it does at 9pm. The cheese decays the moment it is made and there is nothing that anyone can do to reverse the dying process. His position is that he will only use the highest quality ingredients. For him quality is measured in many dimensions but the first big one is freshness. It has to be more alive than another similar ingredient which may be produced from the highest quality provider known. Another case in point was his use olive oil. He simply will not import the most expensive Italian olive oil in the world because it isn’t as fresh as what his local guy can produce. He claims he gets the best olive oil because his supplier presses olives for him nearly on demand. He gave example after example of this from flour to olive oil, to the basil and oregano he grows on the side of his restaurant. All his vegetables are selected by him for use each day. He will not use them a day later. He can’t and he won’t because it would violate everything he stands for. In summary he calls it knowing your miller.
Can anyone now guess with certitude what Chris’s answer to my opening question was? Perhaps a few more insights are in order first.
Chris considers every type and style of pizza made to be valid. Another strange use of words but hopefully they’ll begin making sense. In his view, Neapolitan is no better than NY. Chicago no better than California. As he put it, his own family endorses no less than three different types of pizza so who is to say which is the best? He knows only one truth when it comes to pizza – all styles are some variation on Italian pizza. Pizza from Naples to be exact. All the different variations available today around the globe are in some way tied to Naples. But in his mind he only wants to make the best artisan pizza he is capable of making not a replica of some other man’s. He did spend a year or so in Naples learning pizza until he felt certain he understood all he could before venturing out commercially. The most important lesson he learned about the pizzerias in Naples could be summed up as they used the freshest locally grown ingredients available to them and they focused on making the best pies they could.
Simply put it is all about freshness. That is his secret. Not much of a revelation when first heard. Even less of a secret but it is what makes Chris unique in the pizza world. When combined with his meticulous attention to detail in every other facet of making a pie it all adds up to a spectacular culinary experience. He makes his own type of pizza just like what he saw made in Naples. While he considers the work that Anthony at Una Pizza Napoletana is doing as very important, it’s not for him. He doesn’t want to recreate a Neapolitan pizza. He wants to make the best pizza available to him with American ingredients just like what the Italians are doing with the ingredients available to them. His tomatoes are all grown in America. His olive oil is pressed in Arizona. His Proscuitto comes from Iowa. His cheese comes from his own recipe every day. One could never get mozzarella as fresh as what he can make by importing it from Italy. In Chris’s world, products which can be obtained with absolute freshness will always taste better than older ones assuming that they are obtained from the highest quality producer to begin with. It all gets back to his point about pizza dying. Once you understand this perspective about pizza ingredients and freshness it all begins making sense doesn’t it? It also makes you think about why others aren’t embracing a similar approach.
A few tidbits about flour. Chris believes Italian 00 flour is good for making Neapolitan pizzas. He thinks American High Gluten is good for NY style pies. Only problem is, he isn’t making those styles. Instead he uses an American made organic flour which has bread/high gluten flour like protein levels (13 – 14.5%) but is softer than any Italian flour made. How is this so? Again it all gets back to knowing your miller. Organic flour has all the properties Chris desires and it produces a crust which is as perfect as I have ever eaten. Was the crust perfectly pockmarked? No. Did it have perfect flavor and texture? Absolutely. Chris could make a crust with more nooks and crannies only it wouldn’t be his then. It would be someone else’s and that doesn’t fit his eye. He does use a Biga and anywhere from an 8 hour room temperature rise up to two days with the help of a cooler. The bread he serves is made from the same recipe but differs only with more Biga. Chris does believe that bread is similar but completely different and so it requires it own methods and formula.
What does all this add up to? Good question and one which I have contemplated heavily these past few days. On a personal level it means there is another kindred soul out there in the world of pizza who has defined his personal station according to his rules. Much like what I have tried to do with Pizza Raquel. The goal Chris has is the exact same as mine except he executes on a commercial basis whereas I am a humble home pizza maker. Chris would love to be able to put Mozart on, open a killer bottle of wine and make a couple of pies every so often like a few of us home pizza makers no doubt do. But he has commercial concerns which necessitate a few tweaks. Simply put, the goal is to produce the best artisan pie one is capable of with the highest quality ingredients. Until my conversation with Chris I thought the path to the best pizza was to import many of the ingredients from Italy. I now understand that fresher American ingredients can produce a better pie based on the freshness perspective. For me, this new way of thinking is the missing link to get to the top of the mountain. While it’s true I need a wood burning oven and a fork mixer, I also need to completely rethink my approach to ingredients. Fresh is better.
And why not. It makes total sense that freshly made mozzarella will taste and perform better than mozzarella imported from Italy (or anywhere else) which has aged for a few days due to realities of transportation time. The fresh mozzarella on the Margherita I inhaled did not have a sloppy glob or pool of fluid in it's middle. It was rather dry in fact. Now I'm not saying that Chris's Margherita was authentic according to common wisdom. But I am saying that for me, it was how a Marghertia should be made. It fit Chris's eye and mine perfectly. It was also sliced which is another violation of the so called rules. So what. In my mind pizza should be eaten with your hands. The only change I would make to Chris's masterpiece is that I would prefer a 15" - 16" form factor. Why? Well it just fits my eye better. It also makes total sense that freshly pressed olives from Arizona would taste better than anything imported in a bottle or canned overseas. For the first time, I could actually taste the fruitiness of the olive oil on the pies we ordered. Same principle applies to Proscuitto from Iowa, freshly ground organic flour from an American miller, and all the other ingredients one can think of. That’s assuming, of course, that one knows where to find the level of quality Chris has been able to assemble. So in a sense Chris makes his version of what Neapolitans make only with American ingredients. The end result was fabulous and frankly was the best I have ever had. Every other pizza I have ever consumed had major flaws which were immediately noticeable. I have gotten to the point where I could even detect the specific flaws with accuracy. However, I could not detect any flaw with any of the pies Chris made for our group. Crust? Perfect. Sauce? Perfect. Cheese? Perfect. Olive Oil? Perfect. Overall rating? Not measurable by my scale.
So back to my original question to Chris. His answer was hybrid. Not Neapolitan, NY, or any other type I have heard of. He invented his own category based upon what his intuition told him to do. It is heavily influenced by his upbringing in the Bronx and his Italian heritage but it is clearly his own invention. On another level he is doing what the famous Neapolitan pizzerias are doing – sourcing the finest locally available ingredients and intensely keeping an eye on every step of the process of ultimately plating a pizza. Chris put it best when he told me that pizza is like a human being, it is dying the moment it is plated. Better ingredients truly do make a better pizza.
With all that as a background, allow me to describe the wonderful group of ladies we were seated with. There was Mary from Virginia, Brigit from Sacramento, LuLu from Buffalo, and the inspiration of my life, my wife Andrea. We were served five pies and none of us could agree on the order of preference:
Mary – Rosa, Bianco Verde, Margherita, Sunny Boy, Wise Guy
Brigit – Margherita, Sunny Boy, Rosa, Bianco Verde, Wise Guy
LuLu – Sunny Boy, Margherita, Rosa, Wise Guy, Bianco Verde
Andrea – Rosa, Margherita, Sunny Boy, Bianco Verde, Wise Guy
pftaylor – Margherita, Rosa, Wise Guy, Sunny Boy, Bianco Verde
Margherita: Tomato Sauce, Fresh Mozzarella, Basil
Rosa: Red Onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rosemary, AZ Pistachios
Sonny Boy: Tomato Sauce, Fresh Mozzarella, Salami, Gaeta Olives
Bianco Verde: Fresh Mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Ricotta, Arugula
Wise Guy: Wood Roasted Onion, House Smoked Mozzarella, Fennel Sausage.
It should be noted that each and every person seated at our table described their fifth choice as better than anything they had ever eaten. In that light, Chris has succeeded. He commented to me that the highest compliment a patron could bestow upon him would be to simply show up for more. Count me in...
Attached are the numerous pictures of our experience and a video which I trust Pete-zza and Steve can post.