We posted this Chris Bianco interview years ago, and now with the publication of his book, Bianco – Pizza, Pasta and Other Foods I Like, we’re re-publishing part of that original interview. The full article can be found here.
The Music of Pizza
If you’re a devotee pf pizza blogs and sites, we don’t have to tell you how great Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix is, or why it’s worth waiting hours for the pizza there, or what an interesting guy Chris Bianco, the owner and pizzaiolo, is. But we’re telling you.
If you don’t know about Pizzeria Bianco, here’s the short story: Pizzeria Bianco was opened in 1994 by Bronx-born Chris Bianco, who made every single pizza there for fifteen years. People wait up to three hours in line for a table, because Chris doesn’t do take-out; he wants you to sit down and taste it out of the oven. Those who know about such things have proclaimed Pizzeria Bianco the best pizza in the U.S., possibly the world. We won’t argue.
We were on our way cross-country in our motorhome. It wasn’t exactly a pizza tour – we’d only had pizza once between New York and Phoenix (a forgettable experience in Oklahoma City), but Bianco was a must-visit. We’d been hearing and reading about it for a long time, and hadn’t been there yet.
We called ahead and asked Chris for an interview – something we might never have been brave enough to do without Peter Reinhart’s encouragement – and he was very friendly and gracious. We knew the pizza was going to be good, and we wondered about the man who makes the pies. We’d heard Chris Bianco in an NPR radio interview, read about him, and knew he was from the Bronx and had some fascinating ideas about pizza and life, but frankly, never thought he’d have the time to talk with us.Parking a car in downtown Phoenix isn’t difficult. Parking a 25-foot long, 11-foot high motor home is another story. Lillian took one for the team and searched for parking while Cary sat down with Chris before the pizzeria opened for the evening.
The Chris Bianco Interview
P4P: You probably know that there’s a whole mystique that’s built up around Bianco.
Chris Bianco: I don’t know much about that. I try to keep my head down, you know. I’ve just been around a long time. I opened up my first place (in Phoenix) in ’88.
P4P: What made you come to Phoenix?
Chris Bianco: I think it was a lifestyle choice. I didn’t know anybody west of Connecticut, and I just kept going till I found a place where I felt comfortable, and this was it.
P4P: And why pizza? You’ve said that it’s not about passion for pizza, it’s about passion.
Chris Bianco: I think there’s a whole movement right now which kinda troubles me; this whole separation of “I love this, I love that, I’m passionate for pizza, passionate for this or that.” For me, you know, I was born in the Bronx. Pizza was part of my neighborhood, my culture, being Italian-American. You know, it might be barbecue for someone else, whatever they gravitate towards. For me it was more of an expression.
Through that – pizza, or whatever our work is – it becomes metaphorical to the process, it connects us to things that actually matter. It connects us to human beings, humanity. In my case, it connects us to farmers and artisans, people, families. These bags of flour, these things we turn into circles, there’s a human element and a gift to it. We start to look at it, turn it upside down, check the upskirt, the downskirt, all this kind of crap, it’s really disturbing. I’m disturbed by this movement. It’s really dissecting something which — there’s no magic to it, it’s just a process; you want to be a violin player, play the violin, listen to music, develop it, see what music you like. We want this fast-track, Cliff Notes type of mentality. We see a house, we’ve gotta own it. We go to visit a place, we’ve gotta move there.
Sometimes I disappoint people because, well, obviously I love what I do but I don’t love it more than anything else, not more than my relationships, my family.
P4P: Compared to like, at DiFara’s in Brooklyn. Dom DeMarco makes pizza morning till night, now in his 70’s he’s cut back to five days a week…
Chris Bianco: That’s not me. I mean, I made every pizza in this place for fifteen years, but I’ve got a few issues I’ve been dealing with over the years. I’ve had asthma since I was five years old, so I’ve had a struggle with the flour for years. It’s a harsh reality this year, and I’ve had to kinda step back a little, get some help from my guys. My brother works with me, my sister’s been working with me since I opened, and there’s gonna have to be a time where you have to – well, it is a young man’s game in that way, I believe. You talk about the Yankees, well, there’s a time when Bobby Murcer had to hang up his glove.
Sometimes we push ourselves past the point of relevance, where you say, how can we really affect anything in a positive way? You know, there’s a real physicality to this business. There are guys that are banging out 250, 300 pies and cooking with fire, and just dealing with the struggle — I mean it’s no more struggle than anyone else’s job, but it’s a pretty stressful environment. You’re met with a lot of expectations, and I’m here hopefully to deliver.
Everyone’s been very kind to us, waiting and putting up with things. People say, ‘is it worth the wait, is it worth it?’ I don’t know, I don’t know what’s worth something that long. I’ve done something consistently for a long time, and you sit down and eat it, I hope when you get there it’s of worth. And when people say, ‘ahh, it’s not worth it,’ I used to struggle so much with that. I’m still affected by what people think. I care what you think. I’m not one of these peole that says, I don’t care what anybody thinks – I care what everyone thinks. And everyone’s opinion, I take wholeheartedly.
P4P: I’m eager to taste your pizza.
Chris Bianco: It’s an expression. You know, my brother makes the dough by hand, we don’t use a machine. Three fifty-pound batches a day, we make our bread in the morning – we closed for lunch here because it really compromised the process.
I always say that, for me, it’s more of a human study than a restaurant. It’s afforded me to watch and listen to a lot of things and meet a lot of really interesting people, to exchange ideas and be inspired and hopefully, in some cases by accident, inspire people to do their own thing, to do something that they enjoy, and take what they want from it.
P4P: I was always intimidated about making pizza. Growing up in Brooklyn I’ve seen a lot of pizza being made and I always thought, ‘I can’t do that’, and my wife and I have really just started making pizza. The initial stuff, making the dough and putting on the cheese and tomatoes, it seems like it doesn’t take long to learn but I guess it takes a lifetime to master.
Chris Bianco: You never master it, I don’t care how many lifetimes, and that’s the beauty of it. You see, that’s the slippery slope, where people say ‘master this’ – there’s no master; you’re in a relationship with something. That’s what’s really beautiful about it, it’s always bigger than you. It needs you, you need it. There’s no difference in any relationship. There’s no mastering of it – you engage. You engage with it on a daily level.
Take pizza, we have our objective, our intention, our medium. Our cooking medium, what we’re able to work with: flour, water, condition, time, audience and what their expectations are, and what’s our intention – and really being clear with that intention – and serving that intention and staying focused on it. It’s very similar to music or sports in that way, where you stay focused on your mission and know that you might get better at something, but the minute you believe you’ve mastered it, it’ll show you who’s boss. I’ve had a beautiful relationship with flour, water, yeast, salt and the human experience.
I appreciate sharing this too – like Peter (Reinhart) and I, we’ve gotten to share a lot of time, and Brian Spangler (Apizza Scholls, Portland, OR), and other people that are great people in this business, very passionate people, like Jim Lahey (Co., NYC), brilliant guy, a great baker who’s doing pizza now, and everyone’s got their own take and opinion, and yours matters and is just as relevant as mine, and that’s what makes it beautiful.
I’m not one who thinks so much that people have to pay their dues – you might make a pizza the first day that might be the best thing in the world, that can happen. Now, repetition and keeping it together and doing it 300 times… well there are a lot of elements to it.
Some days I get tired, physically, sometimes emotionally tired too (chuckles), but it’s given me a lot. Hopefully, people can take something from this and do something good with it, to go back home and be inspired by it, to share it, it’s a process. I don’t care if it’s exercise, or yoga, or running, or music. It’s a beginning, a middle and an end, an organization of harnessing, notes if your a musician, and all of a sudden the notes turn into something and there’s a physicality to it, there’s a sound and you enjoy it and this is very similar.
Pizza can be a great common denominator. Making a pizza for someone is a great shared experience, like someone you went to high school with, or being stuck in an elevator with someone, making a pizza with someone is essentially a lot like that, you’ve gone through something. And when you eat it, there’s a deep appreciation for the process. I think as Americans, we’re so removed from the process; the process of laying down an animal to have a cheeseburger, or where things come from, we’re disconnected from the reality of it.
I appreciate your asking me questions. I’m not here to preach and I hope I don’t come off like that. I’m just sharing what I’ve seen from this perch, and it’s one of gratitude. I used to be the rebel who didn’t listen, and opened up in a crazy place, and won’t do take-out, and it was always for no intention other than to do something really special.
And I hope it is, uncompromised. I mean, this isn’t rocket science, I’m not curing cancer. I’m doing something that hopefully can sustain people, to do something that’s actually important and look at life and the simplest pleasure of it and take it for what it is and maybe not be so maniacal about it and just enjoy the expression of it. I mean, you can have a great pizza here and then go to DiFara’s or go to Totonno’s or whatever your place is and submit to it. That’s what I try to do when I eat out – I just want to submit to it, to see the chef’s intention and not be quick to compare but just enjoy it.
There was no other reason coming out here other than to get away from — in New York you know as well as I do that there’s so much competition, competition for a parking space, everything. And it’s not always fair – I’ve told this story a million times – when I was a kid folding boxes that said, ‘You’ve Tried The Rest, Now Try The Best’, and I didn’t understand that because they were using the same crappy ingredients that everybody else was. So there’s propaganda that we buy that something’s the best without a basis to it. ‘Don’t ask any questions, it’s the best.’
And then I got older and started traveling and meeting people like Alice Waters, 25 years ago meeting organic farmers and using indigenous ingredients and saying, ‘wow, this is just Navajo frybread but it’s got great texture and integrity and craft,’ and seeing that there’s something beyond the five boroughs. I’m so grateful being from there but it’s really made me appreciate the whole world and made me more of a universal citizen than a New Yorker. I think I have a greater appreciation and respect for all people and especially their food expressions.
P4P: As a novice pizzamaker, any words of advice or something I should keep in mind?
Chris Bianco: I do. I have a couple of bits of advice for you: You always know more than you think you do, and trust your instincts.
Jim Lahey and I had a good talk about this. Now Jim is probably the most knowledgeable baker, Peter (Reinhart) is great too, they’re both great, but Jim is — I don’t use the word genius that much, but the guy is a genius. His knowledge of baking is unprecedented, I believe. And I have a completely different philosophy than him. Like, I don’t want to say ‘I don’t wanna know,’ but the cooking that I do is very responsive – I respond to something and then I figure it out afterwards. Jim does due diligence first, he wants to know exact hydration, numbers, fermentation times…
P4P: When we make dough, my wife Lillian always tells me I have to learn how to feel when it’s ready —
Chris Bianco: I think from that point, you have to start to watch things, you have to do things — I don’t want to say ‘wrong’ — at the beginning, it’s really understanding the process and then recording in your book what you did and what happened in that result and then see if there is consistency in that.
Jim’s book is fantastic, and all of Peter’s books are great, There are great books on baking, but I think baking, ultimately it’s — you watch these guys in Europe, they stand there with a cigarette and when the ashes hit the ground it’s time to proof out the dough, or — there’s a cadence to it, a very organic cadence to it. It’s not that they’re ignorant by any means, it’s that they’re responding to something instinctual versus scientific. I think there’s real relevance to every method, there’s no wrong or right.
In The Bronx, there’s a great deli called Mike’s Deli, run by David Greco, Mike’s son. Mike was a legendary mozzarella maker. Our neighborhood deli of choice. They taught me to make mozzarella there, I used to help out and they were very kind to me. Once we were kneading out curds and I said, “David, how do we know when it’s ready?” And he said, “when it smiles.” And somehow, in your hands, in the hot water, and back and forth, and watching the sheen of it, and getting the feel of it, you understand what that meant.
Now, that would never translate if you wrote that down in a recipe. But being in it and watching it — like with some guys I’ve worked with from other countries, when you have a language barrier, they’re some of the greatest learners because of the instinctual gear that takes over. They’re not learning from a recipe book, they’re watching and learning. It’s a very natural way to cook. UNLESS you’re someone who loves numbers. Me, I was never a grade-A student. I was always kinda intimidated by all the thinking.
So trust your instincts, develop your palate. With pizza for instance, if you’ve tasted most of the ones that you’ve deemed as ‘standards’, then you choose, through your taste profile and your selection, which ones speak to you.
Like Nancy Silverton’s (Pizzeria Mozza in L.A.) has more of a breadlike quality, which I love – I think it’s fantastic – she’s a great baker, it makes sense. We talked about that before she opened. Maybe it’s not traditionally Neapolitan, but it has great integrity. It’s a great product and it’s perfectly balanced.
Pizza is no different than any dish. Less is not more. Sometimes too much is still not enough. It’s about finding that balance – finding things in balance.
So, record the process, work through your own taste buds. That’s our reference for good. If you get a guy from Korea to review your breakfast place and you don’t have kimchi, it has nothing to do with good or bad, its reference and expectation. And I think when we’re clear with our reference, with our intention, it’s easier to navigate.
P4P: So which is your pizza, what would you order from yourself?
Chris Bianco: You know what? The Rosa and the Marinara are my two favorites. They couldn’t be more different, but somehow they’re very similar. They both demand your attention and they’re both deceivingly complex but very simple. And they’re the two I eat the most!