Just about two weeks ago, Arizona chef Chris Bianco opened a Tucson outpost of his legendary Phoenix restaurant Pizzeria Bianco. It was a highly anticipated move from a man whose talents have made him one of the most widely lauded and essential pizza-makers in his field since the original pizzeria opened in the back of a grocery store in 1988.
Eater caught up with Bianco by telephone a few days after the Tucson opening to talk about the expansion, his pizza philosophy, and his forthcoming cookbook. Here now is Bianco on why this is "a really special time" for his team, the importance of good ingredients, and why each person has to find their own best pizza: "I think sometimes we're in a world where we're waiting for everybody to fucking tell us how they do it somewhere else instead of saying, 'You know what? I like it this way.'" Here's the interview:
Congratulations on the Tucson location. I know you're just a few days in on that, but how is it all going?
It's really special. As you get older, the hope is that the next thing you do is the best thing you've ever done. The opportunity for this project in Tucson was to keep it as close to the original as I could. But what would I do differently? [Opening in Tucson was] just getting to really take inventory of where you are.
Pizza, like every dish on the planet, is only as good as the ingredients.
I opened in 1988. I know I'm a better restaurant now because pizza, like every dish on the planet, is only as good as the ingredients. Technique will always be [important], but it'll never be more important than sourcing great flour varietals, and the great artisan cheeses that are available today that weren't there before. I mean, shit, back in the day, I begged somebody to grow arugula for me. All the things that are so commonplace now were really a challenge to get at the highest level. Now we have so many great farmers and suppliers. It makes it special.
Pizzeria Bianco, Tucson, AZ. [Photo: John Hall Photography]
And then also to build something that will be here long after I'm here. The original one I built was, I don't want to say I had zero plan, but pizza is what I did. It was no, "Holy shit, let me get my pro forma together and check the demographics and socio-economic whatever." It was an opportunity in a little space, I could afford it, my buddy brought ovens in, and all of a sudden you're in business.
Years later, you're like, "Holy shit." You're [thinking about] your own mortality and what you want to leave behind. The opportunity was to leave something better than we found it. In my case, hopefully beyond the four walls, it will be the relationships we made, the inspiration I've received as a chef, as a human being, and hopefully I'll be able to articulate and continue to inspire others. I think it's a really special time. And Tucson is an incredibly great canvas for that. Not only is it close to us in Phoenix, but it's a really special place as far as its vicinity to a great little wine country.
What are you doing that's different in Tucson?
We're doing our original six pizzas and then we're doing one dish. We did one lasagna, so one dish that we didn't have back in the day. Even though we only have a wood-burning oven, it's our only piece of equipment, we can do some things al forno or do some things as an alternative to just the six pizzas.
The original restaurant we did I think is crystal clear what it is. It's six pizzas and an antipasto and a salad. This one is about the same commitment and focus, and also repetition. Really sharing that pizzas are made ... there's a life cycle that comes into play that goes all the way back from the wheat fields to the olives ripening to the way it's milled. How does it get to the store? That's the same with every ingredient.
For better or for worse, I will say it's the best thing we've ever done.
What we do at the actual oven, the point of you ordering a pizza, is a very mechanical aspect. And I'm very proud [of it], but I think we've really learned where to spend our time, procuring ingredients or developing fermentation times or mozzarella that's the right fattiness or [deciding if] water filtration is worth it or not. All the things that help you continue to elevate something that's really humble and accessible. And at the end of the day, you can be really proud of it. Which I am. For better or for worse, I will say definitely it's the best thing we've ever done.
[Photo: John Hall Photography]
Is it something you're trying to talk more with customers about?
Not really. You called me and I answered. I've always been willing to talk to people; I've always cherished the opportunity to translate as much as I could my intention and the journey, to explain ourselves and justify value. But we've all read menus that are so descriptive that they've already taken the journey for you in essence. What I try to do is not dumb it down, but I want to make sure people really dig it first. If it's important to you, I'll talk about any aspect that you want, as technical or philosophical as you want.
But I don't think any of that matters if you don't love it. If you're moved by it, we can talk about it. I enjoy that process, too. Going to a restaurant, I just want to submit to it. When you come into a restaurant, I always want to feel like you just discovered it. That's been part of our intention. You use the words "best" and all that other bullshit. We know that's subjective. That's not what it's about. It's about procuring ingredients that we can handle with the greatest respect and hopefully be part of a food chain that is very special in a global perspective. I don't give a fuck if it's Tucson or Timbuktu or wherever.
Anybody that tells me what the best is, their own best, that is their truth.
I've tried to share as much with a lot of young pizzaiolos or chefs that have come to visit over the years, hopefully empowering and inspiring them and then challenging what they believe in. What do they feel good about telling their customers? What flavor profiles do they like? Anybody that tells me what the best is, their own best, that is their truth. For me, it's about feeling that we all have a sense of worth. You know how you like your toast. You like it light or you like it dark or you like your butter tempered or you like it ice cold. Those are things that you recognize which you celebrate. I think sometimes we're in a world where we're waiting for everybody to fucking tell us how they do it somewhere else instead of saying, "You know what? I like it this way."
[Photo: John Hall Photography]
So do you think there even is a good or a bad pizza?
I'm saying for me to tell you what a beautiful sunset it is and, if you start to tell me about the sunset you saw in Thailand, you're missing a moment. Instead of really just submitting to it.
I imagine a lot of the people who have been to the Tucson location have maybe already been to Pizzeria Bianco. But what has been their discovery from your perspective?
Whether I like it or not, I think people are always skeptical. I mean, people have been so positive. The response has been really humbling and overwhelming, actually, and really positive. The one thing about waiting as long as we did to open, we've had a lot of time to build an incredible staff, so we were really ready when people came. It's no amateur hour. I think it's the best thing we've ever done. I've said all the time [that] this is the best day of my life. I say that a lot because the best day of my life is the day we get to take all those other days with us. Does that make sense? The best day of your life should always be in your future because you get all those other days and [you get to] reflect upon them. So I'm always sort of stockpiling days, and Tucson is one of those.
The collection of farmers in the area and its vicinity, 45 minutes to an hour away from Willcox, which is great for apples and firewood and grapes. And then in Elgin [there are] really special winemakers there, hardcore and really dedicated.
Do you get to take the staff out to visit these purveyors and regions?
Yeah. Some of my staff is coming down to Tucson tomorrow and then going down to Sonoita, and will go down for grape harvest and visit a lot these areas. But they've done that for years. I have relationships with our farmers. I think we tend to employ a lot of people that are inspired by things that we are like searching for better ingredients. It's been a really interesting 20-plus years. We're made up of people from other places and I think that a lot of these people [that] come here dream to make it special.
Sounds like a really special time for you.
I'm happier than I've ever been.
It is. I'm really enjoying it and I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm happily married and I've got a four-month-old baby girl. It's certainly put a lot of things in perspective and slowed my life down just enough so I can comprehend it. I may be a little bit more secure in my life. I think a lot of cooking came from my insecurity. I really did need reinforcing, and I still do in a way. I hope that you enjoy it, I don't need you to, but I want you to. I'm not the greatest businessman, but I want to make something special.
[Photo: John Hall Photography]
But you don't live and die by the critics anymore.
You know what, there's so many of them now. Everyone's got a blog or Twitter. And that's cool. If there's something out there that's negative, I try to respond to it, just make them accountable for it. I think it's easier to be faceless or just soulless even, to talk about someone's business. I've been very fortunate to be on the positive side of a lot of things. But I do love when given the opportunity to converse about things.
I never did any of that social shit, but I started Instagram about five months ago. I really enjoy that. You don't have to be profound. You just see something that inspires you and you share it with people and vice versa. I'm inspired daily when I go on it and see what friends are doing around the world. I'm like holy shit, I want to go there or see that or eat that. It's really positive.
Are you still working on your cookbook?
I am still working on it. It's actually finished. It was due for a Fall release, but I think the word on the street is that it's going to be a Spring release now. But it's definitely coming, and we put a lot of work into it so hopefully it won't suck and it'll be something that will be good for either reading or leveling a table out.
What's your favorite part?
My favorite part of the book, I guess it's just therapy for me. Books are kind of self-serving. They help us work through things. It's hard to know sometimes what's important to you or me is not what people want to know and vice versa. But my favorite part is the unknown, that hopefully people enjoy and get to use it. What I share with people isn't gospel; it's only my experience. I hate when someone tells you that everything you did was wrong. It's the way I've taken. So I think my favorite part is knowing that I made it for people to really enjoy. It's not necessarily about me, but about my experience with food and how I see food. And then you hope that people can find it useful in their own way.