Saturday, April 27, 2013

Review: Pane Bianco, Phoenix

A few years before I began this blog, during a business trip to Phoenix I made a point to get out and try the celebrated pizza at Pizzeria Bianco. We waited for three hours on a beautiful warm Phoenix night. We wandered to the adjacent Bar Bianco and ordered glasses of wine. We downed quite a few on the picnic benches outside while we waited.
"Sonny Boy" at Pizzeria Bianco. Click any pic to enlarge

How was the pizza?  In my memory, superb. I think I had the "Sonny Boy" and it was perhaps the first time I had cured meats pizza toppings other than sausage or pepperoni. I loved it, I was glad that I spent the three hours waiting, but it didn't rank above my favorite Trenton pies, such as DeLorenzo's (review HERE).
Sausage pie at DeLorenzo's

With another Phoenix conference looming in April 2013, I began thinking about Pizzeria Bianco again. I wanted to repeat the Bianco experience, and give it a new and full analysis. But because every dinner was arranged for a business purpose, I didn't contemplate another chance to persuade a half-dozen folks to surrender 3+ hours to my pizza obsession.
Exterior at Pane Bianco

Fortune smiled on me, however. Less than 24 hours before my flight to Phoenix, I read a feature story about Chris Bianco, the founder and head pizzaiolo at Pizzeria Bianco.  He's opening a second Pizzeria Bianco in Tuscon.  But in a well-written article on Slice - Seriouseats (link HERE), I learned that he has two other Phoenix restaurants: "Italian" which is a (surprise) Italian trattoria, and Pane Bianco, which opened as a lunch  place for sandwiches, but expanded into dinners. 
The bar at Pane Bianco

Well, I figured, any meal under the direction of Chris Bianco has plenty of promise, so I found the menu online. Indeed, Pane Bianco still offers sandwiches at lunch, but the dinner menu includes a small selection of "Plates" and on our visit, that meant things like lasagna and shepherd's pie with lamb. It also includes four pizzas of Chris Bianco design -- the Margherita, the Marinara, the Rosa, and the Biancoverde.
The pizza oven at Pane Bianco

In that interview with Lance Roberts at Seriouseats, Bianco says:
"...we've already been doing pizza in all the restaurants. I don't want to say it's a best-kept secret, but I know it's all the same pizza dough because my brother Marco makes it all at Pane. So if we're running a two-and-a-half hour wait at Pizzeria Bianco, a lot of times you can get the same pizza at Pane in fifteen minutes."
We had no problem securing a 7:30 reservation on a Wednesday night for our party of six; in fact, the place was very quiet that night. Our waiter (young man with an impressive command of the menu) told us that they are typically much busier.
Specials on the chalk board

The restaurant is situated in a half funky-hipster / half auto-body-shop stretch of Central Ave. It looks like it would be much at home in Denver or Santa Fe.  The inside was hip and casual, and it was easy to get comfortable. Our group took up a table in a private alcove at the rear of the restaurant.
Our private dining alcove

We pondered the appealing "boards" as possible shared appetizers -- grilled vegetables, or meats, or cheeses. The consensus, though, was salads to share as appetizers, and we chose three. There was an inventive fennel with grapefruit mix, one salad that included prosciutto and cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, and another that featured arugula and apples. All very good, especially the one with the mozz, but none were game-changers.
Fennel and grapefruit salad

Only two in our group selected pizza. Two others chose lasagna, and one opted for the shepherd's pie (which would have been my choice, absent the pizza). I've read so much about the Rosa (red onion, Parmesan, rosemary, Arizona pistachios) that I had to try it. My colleague ordered the Margherita; it's his base pie for comparison purposes.
Tomato, prosciutto, and mozzarella salad

I didn't try the lasagna or the shepherd's pie, but both looked terrific and my companions polished them off with glee.
The lasagna

My Rosa arrived a stunning beauty, with a golden glow from the cheese, lovely ribbons of purple onion, and studded with browned chunks of pistachio. This is clearly a Neapolitan-style pie, less puffy than most but with characteristic leopard spotting. 

The Rosa

It differs in that the crust is thinner, crisper, and sturdier than a typical Neapolitan. Pieman Bianco also avoids the distressingly wet center that is so common (and, apparently, expected) with authentic Neapolitan pie.
A slice of Rosa

 There is a lot of similarity in how Peter McAndrews at La Porta in Media, PA (review HERE) and Chris & Marco Bianco in Phoenix bring in elements of Trenton pizza to improve a Neapolitan pie. If you can't soon get to Phoenix, you may want to try the Neapolitan hybrid pizza at La Porta.
La Porta's updated Neapolitan

The Rosa was terrific, it was destination pie, but by itself it didn't quite elevate pizzaiolo Chris Bianco in the same league with DiFara's Dom DeMarco. But then, my colleague swapped a slice of the Margherita for a slice of my Rosa. At that point I tasted perfection.  
A slice of Margherita
Minimal tip sag

Harmony and balance are the hallmarks of the best pizzas, and this Margherita pie nailed it. The crust had all the flavor and chew of a Neapolitan pie, but none of the sag or sogginess. Just enough lightly seasoned bright tomato sauce, and a similarly deft touch with the fresh mozzarella. This single slice was the best-executed Margherita pie I've ever had, and it rivalled the masterpiece Neapolitans from New York's Motorino (review HEREand Forcella (review HERE).
Great char, no sogginess

These brilliant pies were modestly priced, averaging about $13. Pane Bianco is a can't-miss destination for Phoenix dining. This pie is very similar in construct and quality to those at La Porta. 
Some of each

The Margherita is the important pizza here. Let's give the crust a 9, the sauce a 9, the cheese an 8, and the balance a perfect 10. For me, this pie sets the standard for the Neapolitan genre.  Overall, 9.33. Add in the hipster vibe and great service, this was an astonishing bargain that required no hassle. Get there!
Pizza Happiness

Pane Bianco on Urbanspoon

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