Frequently called the best pizzeria in the United States, Phoenix’s Pizzeria Bianco, with Chef Chris Bianco at the helm, is famous its wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pies with house-made mozzarella and farm-fresh ingredients. A professional pizza-maker for over 25 years, Bianco still makes nearly every pie at Pizzeria Bianco himself. Read on to discover how he got his start in the kitchen, his secrets for making dough at home and his minimalist approach to sauce and toppings.
Let’s talk about dough. For home cooks, dough can be intimidating. What kind of flour do you prefer and what are some easy ways home cooks can elevate their dough?
I think anything that you make can teach you. You know how the first pancake isn’t as good as the last? The more you cook the more you start to understand how long things take and what things start to look like when they’re done. The biggest thing is to watch everything you do all the time. You’re building a relationship with a pizza dough and every time it will be somewhat different. Two things: you will never master this, and that’s a beautiful thing. I never met a master of anything actually, because a master never fails.
You don’t consider yourself a master?
Definitely not. I never met one. I know no masters of pizza, or bread. I think that a hierarchical relationship throws everything out of balance. These ingredients, if they’re not better than you, they’re at least as good as you, so how can we master them?
I think when you start to acknowledge the possibilities in dough, you start to understand things, like what different flours taste like. At the end of the day, it’s about what kind of pizza YOU like. Forget about what I like. Do you like it thin, do you like it crispy, do you like it deep dish…you learn those characteristics, and then you say what’s the best way to make it? What’s the best flour to use to make what I like, what would be the cooking medium that will make the pizza that I like or the bread that I like…what would give me the greatest opportunity for success?
There’s different ways to look at it. For me I am always thinking about the source. Consider the source in everything you do. If you have the opportunity to know the farmers, or the millers, what a beautiful relationship you start to build.
But for the home cook, its trusted names and what you can count on. It’s what your mother cooked, and what you have access to. The big thing about pizza is that it is not an elitist food. It’s an every day food, it’s a flattened bread, it’s a host, it plays well with others. I think sometimes people see it as a—I hate to say this word—base. It sounds so separate, putting things on top of something, instead of making them integral and making them work together.
Pizza is like a canvas, and the dough is going to give you texture and balance and it’s going to have to support those ingredients, wet or dry.
Describe your cooking philosophy.
I’m looking forward to a time when there are no more words like “local” or “organic.” There are just sensibilities, cooking sensibilities, and things that make sense. I want the village next door to sustain and succeed, along with this village, so if we have a butcher, a baker and a pizza maker, and they do, and so on and so forth, than we can all have sources of food and farmer’s markets. But we don’t have all of those things, so I’m totally down to bring my Parmagiano Reggiano in, and it comes in on a slow boat, uncompromised, and it’s going to taste even better a year from now.
Deprivation is a great motivator. I mean kale never would have got a break years ago if someone hadn’t said its good for you, but it’s also everywhere in the winter
Would you say you don’t want to put too many ingredients on a pizza?
I love art and design with kind of a minimalist slant. I think in cooking, less isn’t always more. Sometimes less is already too much. I like to use words like appropriate. We’re talking about an appropriate amount of ingredients that maybe the hydration of the dough can handle, the time, the temperature and the cooking medium. What we do as cooks is put ingredients in place so they can succeed. I wouldn’t try to bring a beautiful extra-virgin olive oil to a smoke point that would ruin its characteristics. I assembled these ingredients with an opportunity to get them to cook properly and melt properly, not be soupy or dry. I put them in balance. I think that’s what we try to do: we put things in balance with an opportunity to succeed.
How long do you let your dough rise and why is it important?
Depending on the ambient temperature, anywhere from 3 hours to 48 hours, but I like really the window of make it the night before, or making it in the early morning, give it a little bit of a rest, putting it into the fridge, shaping it into balls, and letting it set out again. The cool thing about cooking is that as you experience it, you find your window. So I think it’s just like watching it, not to be so stringent…it’s very forgiving. It’s basically like, when it feels like this…its kind of when you’re making a steak, what does well-done feel like? That’s when things start to make sense.
What are some of the common mistakes people make when making pizza?
Things I hear all the time from people: my dough is really hard to stretch. OK, well if it’s really hard to stretch, that means it probably wasn’t proofed enough at the ball stage. Other things that I like to do—I don’t like to use the words “you never do”—but this is one of those things that’s on the tipping point of never—I don’t like to use a rolling pin for something that’s worked so hard to leaven and gain aeration and cell structure. I want to make sure I don’t push them out and knock them out when they can serve you.
Let’s talk about sauce. You don’t like to cook your pizza sauce.
That’s a really interesting thing that you just said. I would say, understanding the process, is that I do like to cook my pizza sauce, but my pizza sauce is cooking on the pizza. That is again part of what my role is. My role is putting the ingredients in a place and letting them succeed. So if I crush those tomatoes, all I need to do is to get them to the next stage, and by some of the juice evaporating, and it bubbling and it cooking, and kinda getting into that dough, it will give me the desired texture I want.
Do you make your own mozzarella?
We make our own, but there is great mozzarella in the States. For me, my favorite mozzarella tastes like a fresh glass of milk. From a flavor profile, I like buffalo but I prefer the neutrality of a cow’s milk.
What was the pizza in your life that made you want to do it for a living?
I’m still waiting for that moment!
It’s your madeleine! What was the moment that you realized, I really need to do this, for the rest of my life?
I don’t know if it was pizza that made me want to make pizza. I think it’s being in the kitchen, being around food, that made me want to see how I could spend more time in the kitchen. I think it’s all about where your from too, for me, there was this romantic aspect to a pizzeria when I was growing up.
Do you think its necessary for home cooks to have pizza stones and peels to achieve a crispy, chewy crust?
There’s other ways to do it. You can do it in a pan, with olive oil, letting it proof like Sicilian pizza. But if you are using a stone, you can turn on the broiler element just two minutes before you load the pizza, what that does is, you’ll load the pizza and you’ll see it become bubbly and crispy and charred. What the broiler element is going to do is imitate what the wood-fired oven did, by bringing direct fire to the surface. Now you have a stone providing the heat beneath your pizza and the broiler providing the flame. This creates oven spring that will allow it to get puffy and charred. As it soon as the crust sets, I put it back to its normal temperature to finish cooking.
What are some of your favorite toppings and pizzas at Pizzeria Bianco?
When you think about pizza as an edible plate, your mind expands and gets creative. That being said, my favorite pizzas tend to be the simplest, like the marinara with no cheese, just crushed tomato sauce and fresh garlic and a little bit of wild oregano, olive oil and sea salt. You know, the things that taste good on a plate together probably, more often than not, actually taste pretty good together on an edible round doughy disk.
That’s the fun thing about it. At home you can really be creative. Lets say you had a roast beef last night, and maybe you have a bit of Stilton or Pt Reyes blue, and maybe some pickled I think most things come about with a little bit of trial and error.
My menu changes with the seasons. All the antipastos and the market salads. When I was a kid, you’d never order anything at the pizzeria other than the pizza. Like you could get a pasta or a chicken dish, but the (salads) wouldn’t get the focus that they deserved and the focus was on the pizza. Even if you’re going to offer one salad it should be using the seasons’ bounty, whether its dandelion greens and shaved pecorino or the season’s peaches with arugula and a bit of fresh goat cheese—just think about the totality of the meal and how you want to serve it.
Did your time in Italy influence your cooking, and your pizza style?
No doubt about it. The one thing I never do is to recreate things, to their exact format, I don’t think we do them justice. For me, people ask me all the time, “Is this Neapolitan pizza?” As anyone who has been to Naples is—I was inspired by Naples and also by the Neapolitans that came to America and adapted their pizza to what they had.
Do you make pizza at home?
I do have a pizza oven at home. I have my original oven from my first place in ’88. It’s freestanding in my backyard. I don’t cook in it very often, it’s like an old friend keeping me company. I fire it up every so often, we’ll cook Thanksgiving turkeys and stuff in there. We’ll have a pizza party once in a while.
What are you excited about that’s coming up in the kitchen? Any new technologies?
The biggest thing that I’m excited about in the kitchen is more people getting in it. People much smarter than me are starting to push the envelope, or ask why we did this or say this tool is better…forget all that stuff, what about just getting in there with your friends and family and making breakfast? I think really good things happen when we work together and we’re able to break bread and have a glass of wine and go through a process together.
My parents came from Italy and didn’t want to speak Italian in the house. They wanted to use convenience foods. They wanted to become Americanized because that meant homogenized and modern. How most people really learned to cook was because they loved a family recipe so much that they have to learn how to make it. People who make good things are inspired by great things.
Pizza is one of our first foods—it’s cut into triangles and you can take it with you! It’s a mobile experience. And it’s fair, everyone gets a piece. Friday night was pizza in our family, I remember sitting in the car with my grandfather, carrying two boxes of pizza on my lap.
It’s so familial.
It’s food that you could bring into your home, and your mother didn’t have to clean up, and everyone gathered around it and talked. There’s even accountability in it, like how many you ate and how many you “got”—there’s jealousy…who got more??
What will you be eating for dinner tonight?
I’m working tonight actually. So I’m feeling like a nice bowl of pasta. A really simple aglio olio pepperoncino. Simple.