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Chris Bianco on Pizza, Competitiveness, and Subjectivity

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Chris Bianco thinks everyone should chill out. The pizzaiolo, whose eponymous restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona is often singled out as the best pizzeria in the United States, is turned off by competitiveness and is firm in his belief that in his craft, there should be reference points, not rules. He feels he's in the minority, especially on the latter point, and it seems to scare the hell out of him. On the occasion of Pizza Week, Bianco talks about getting into pizza, dogma, Phoenix, and his goals for the future.

So, what is your story? How does one end up opening one of the most famous pizzerias in the world?
Oh boy, my story: I was born in New York City and lived in the Bronx. My first job was at a pizzeria, when I was about thirteen, working after school. I would fill boxes, deal with the flour — really glamorous work. But something about it really felt like home to me. It was part of my surroundings. We'd give away free slices and take out sodas from the Coke machine, and there was just something about it.

Later on I started working in different restaurants and started falling in love with food — all kinds of food. I found inspiration in Alice Waters and people like Jean-Louis Palladin, who I saw on TV. I wasn't doing food like that, but I saw that what they were doing was sincere and authentic, and I wanted to bring that back to what I was doing.

When did you start making your own pizza?
My first pizzeria opened in Phoenix in 1988. [Bianco opened another Pizzeria Bianco in 1994, which is the current location]

And what kind of pizza did you want to make?
I was entranced by the wood-burning oven and had just come back from Naples and all that shit, but I honestly felt that for me, my objective wasn't to do Neapolitan pizza exactly like it was done there. It was to use that as a reference, something I respected immensely, but I think the most Italian or Neapolitan thing you can do is look around your surroundings and your demographic and then figure out what that means. When I'm in Naples, I want ripe tomatoes and flour from Abbruzzo or wherever it comes from, but when I came back I wasn't going to do that exactly.

I love the fire, the artisanal components, and I just wanted to bring integrity to it without following too many rules. You know, I always tell people, "The best pizza is the one that you like, not the one I tell you to like." Mine isn't better or worse. We can be on best of lists and people can talk about snipping the basil 30 seconds before they put it on the pie, but the only thing that really matters is that primal reaction when you put it in front of someone and they say, "This is fucking delicious." Nothing else matters.

In other words, you aren't dogmatic or strict about this like some others might be?
No, man. There's no such thing. For me to say that there is a totally right way to do it would take away the human element. Our references for good things are references, and just that. The best pizza I ever eat might be tomorrow, and it might be because I know the chef, what his intentions are, and I can identify the ingredients. Or it could be just a slice or a round piece of dough that just came out of an oven.

But it seems rather competitive when it comes to things like barbecue and pizza these days.
It scares the fuck out of me now, man. It's crazy. There's an aggressive nature to it. It's about being the best, being exact — there's an illusion that you can master it, but the whole point is that you can't. I've burned a lot of pizzas in my life to make good ones [laughs]. You know, you go in and out of style and all that, and I just wish that this desire to segregate or create a hierarchy would go away. That intensity is off-putting to me.

At the end of the day, I care about everything that pizza is, but I don't care about pizza at all, in the sense that what I really have passion for or care for is life and everything in it. For me it doesn't make any sense to just be put in that one little category.

The best is subjective. We have to remember that we've created value. It's not that people shouldn't be serious about pizza, but it's no more important than other things in life like being kind to people and trying to be a good person.

Something I'm now remembering: I was in Roberta's [in Brooklyn] the other day. If I slid that pizza under your door, you would lose out on one of the greatest grooves in the country. That's a key example of how yeah, the pizza's great, but it's not the whole experience. These days, I'm also thinking about Paulie Gee's, Jim Lahey, Rob Masullo in Sacramento, Delfina in San Francisco, and Marc Vetri's Osteria in Philadelphia. For me, it's more about connecting than competing.

Let's talk about Phoenix for a second. How unlikely a story is yours in that city?
Wherever you are will ultimately inspire you, but not necessarily define you. Initially, a lot of people came and maybe they didn't expect something that was good at all. There weren't a lot of other things to distract you. What we were doing was basically saying, "Look, there's a lemon tree, a basil tree, some tomatoes" and doing something with that.

Another thing that we did was serve antipasti and other dishes with the pizza, which wasn't the case at a lot of the pizzerias I worked in. You would never order the Greek salad or anything like that to go with the meal. This part of the world offered a lot of gifts in that way.

Do you think about the future? What do you want to do?
People ask me if I'm still making pizza and working in the restaurants, and of course I do, but not as much as I used to. But honestly, I think that I'm making the restaurants better and making a bigger impact by working on organic mozzarella, getting to know the farmers better, and things like that. If I hope to achieve anything, it's making the pantry better for the next generation.

I've got the restaurants here and I'm working on the Union Jack's project with Jamie Oliver in London. The whole point is to have fucking fun. I just want people to relax and enjoy what's in front of them.

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[Photo: Jennifer L.]

Pizzeria Bianco

623 East Adams Street Phoenix, AZ 85004