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Eater Elements: Chris Bianco on His Pizza Rosa

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Welcome to Eater Elements, a series that explores the ideas and ingredients of noteworthy dishes.

Courtesy Pizzeria Bianco
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Master pizzaiolo Chris Bianco says there's only one thing he won't do at his legendary Phoenix pizzeria: He will never add marinara sauce to his popular Rosa pie. A seemingly simple pizza crust topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, onion, rosemary, and pistachios, the Rosa was inspired by a trip Bianco took to Liguria, Italy. While there, he ate a focaccia with Grana cheese and sesame seeds and he "fell in love with the simplicity" of it. In Phoenix, his efforts to recreate the simple perfection of the focaccia were failing, mostly due to the sesame seeds. They just didn't taste the same.

Deciding to "celebrate what's in our backyard," Bianco swapped sesame seeds for pistachios, picked a favorite cheese, and added ingredients he knew and loved like red onion and rosemary. Though it didn't taste like that focaccia in Liguria, the pie had similar elements of fattiness, nuttiness, and overall balance that Bianco thought hit the mark. He explains, "Sometimes we don't do ourselves or our ingredients a service by emulating. It's like playing a cover song; if you do it the exact same way, it won't have the same effect."

The care Bianco put into planning the pizza is matched by the attention he pays to sourcing ingredients. Except for imported cheese, the ingredients in the Rosa all come from nearby purveyors Bianco has developed relationships with. Although his clientele didn't seem to understand the Rosa at first, it now is one of the pizzeria's top-sellers. He credits its success with the combination of flavors and places: "People think there's a secret ingredient or combo, but sometimes things just make sense together." Of course, when the pizza is made in a custom-built oven by a James Beard Award winner, there's also a level of skill and knowledge not accounted for in Bianco's modest explanation. He's expanding too: He just opened a new branch of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, and will be opening in Tucson this Fall. Below, the elements of the Rosa:

1. The Crust

At the base of the Rosa is the crust. Bianco begins with a "simple, straightforward dough" without any "magic ingredients." He does point out that he uses a blend of local wheat flours from Central Milling in Utah and Hayden Flour Mill in Phoenix. These are "strong" protein-rich flours, which ultimately give the crust chew. The wheat flours also add a nutty flavor to the crust. Along with water, the flour is mixed with fresh yeast, sea salt, and a bit of yesterday's dough. Calling salt "romantic," Bianco explains that lately he's been using a Mexican sea salt along with Pacific sea salts. He has also been using salt from a cave in Arizona. Careful to be "gentle" with the dough, Bianco lets it temper before he ferments it for 18 - 20 hours in a refrigerator. The long, cold fermentation builds flavor in the crust.

In the custom-built, 800F wood-burning oven, the crust cooks until it is charred and slightly bubbled. In the oven, Bianco uses local woods like pecan and red oak, noting that in Arizona there's no lack of "dry-ass wood." He finds that the size, cure, and dryness of the wood impact the pizza more than the varietal. The pecan wood he most often uses adds a "subtle" flavor to the pizza, but certainly not the kind of big, smoky flavors that cooking with something like mesquite might. When it first enters the intense heat of the oven, the crust expands. When it's reached the point where it can't expand any further, Bianco moves it to a cooler part of the oven to finish. He estimates the entire cooking process is about three minutes.

2. The Cheese

For the Rosa, Bianco chose a 24 - 30 month-old Parmigiano-Reggiano imported from Italy. Although the focaccia that helped inspire the Rosa was made with Grana, Bianco prefers the nuttiness and fattiness of the Parmigiano. (When Bianco was developing the recipe, he also happened to have Parmigiano in house.) Bianco tosses a generous handful of largely shredded Parmigiano onto the dough as the pizza's first component, leaving about a "thumb space" at the end for the crust. He notes that the weight of the shred ensures proper melting, and he notes if the cheese is low moisture he will use a bit more.

3. The Onions

After adding the cheese, Bianco adds extremely thin red onions to the pizza. He estimates that each pie uses only ? to ¼ of an onion. He shaves the onions into ribbons with a mandolin, his ultimate goal being to "show restraint" with the flavor. Before adding them to the pizza, Bianco tosses the onions with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. The onions are wilted and seasoned before ever going into the oven.

4. The Rosemary

Bianco adds a small amount of fresh rosemary immediately after adding the onions. He notes that when he was originally developing the Rosa that rosemary was one of his go-to ingredients and that there was rosemary growing right outside the restaurant. Just before adding it to the pizza, Bianco takes the rosemary off the stem and leaves the needles intact. Chopping, he says, would release too much of the essential oils which would "fuck up" the pizza. He sprinkles the needles of an estimated ½ a sprig of rosemary over the pizza, giving it "just a kiss of heady, forresty flavor." After adding rosemary, Bianco puts the pizza into the oven.

5. The Pistachios

About half-way through the cooking process, Bianco adds a heaping tablespoon of Arizona pistachios. As with the onions, Bianco emphasizes the importance of pre-seasoning. Bianco preps the pistachios by quickly roasting them with a bit of salt. He then gives them "a bump" with a mortar and pestle, to create different textures with both broken and "dusty" pistachio bits. Adding them while the pizza cooks allows the pistachios to sink into the cheese a bit, as opposed to sitting on top of it. Bianco decided to use pistachio because he couldn't find suitable sesame seeds to recreate the flavors he had in Liguria. He had an abundance of pistachios on hand and found that they "married well" with the flavors of the pie. When the pizza is taken out of the oven, Bianco adds a "glug" of cold, Pacific Sun extra virgin olive oil which adds a temperature contrast and a bright flavor to the pizza. He also likes that as slices are taken from the pizza at the table, each slice is dragged back through the oil, mixing the "burnt bits" into every bite.

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