Pizza heaven in my own backyard

16 Feb

A historic occasion, or at least historic for me: I finally went to Pizzeria Bianco, the small restaurant that critics say makes the best pizza in the country. As I told someone I was chatting with as we all waited for the doors to open, “I’ve lived in Phoenix for 30 years and I’ve never been here.” Have walked past it numerous times on visits to the Arizona Science Center and Heritage Square; have thought about going there in the summer to avoid crowds, even if it meant standing in triple-digit temperatures for an hour or more; have tasted owner Chris Bianco’s creations by going to Pane Bianco on Central Avenue, which serves sandwiches and salads; have bragged that I knew about it way back in the early ‘90s when it was lesser known and a small lunch spot for downtown workers; and have even waxed poetic about it in The Insiders’ Guide to Phoenix.
OK, I see (and taste, thanks to the power of memory and my salivary glands) what all the fuss is about. It was pizza the way I like it: wood-fired thin crust with just the right amount of a flavorful sauce and not too much cheese.
Going there was a brainstorm that Rhonda and I had while seeing something else downtown. She’s a foodie who’s moved away from the city, but she remembers the place well. We arrived at four o’clock on a beautiful February day with temperatures in the 60s. There were a dozen or so small groups ahead of us, so it looked like all systems go if we just stayed put until five, when the doors opened. There are several places to sit near the restaurant and outside the Heritage Square buildings. We chatted with a woman from Anchorage and a young couple that had recently moved to Phoenix from Palm Springs. We heard at least two groups speaking in accented English; it made me wonder if international travel writers make it a point to visit the restaurant. While we waited, the maitre’ d, in blazer and black turtleneck, told us a little about the place, encouraged us to walk into the kitchen and ask questions, and recommended the margarita pizza and the antipasto for the evening. It was a gracious welcoming, the likes of which I’ve never heard at a restaurant before; in fact, in this speech and during a visit to our table, he thanked us for taking the trouble to give Pizzeria Bianco a try. Shortly before the doors opened, we saw Chris Bianco walk in. Reportedly, he doesn’t do the pizza baking himself anymore, like he did for so many years, because of allergies. Imagine: such a famous restaurant that Rhonda and I aren’t the only ones taking pictures of ourselves under the entrance sign.
We were the last group to get in on the first seating and John joined us after walking over from ASU. We tried the antipasto (purple fingerling potatoes, asparagus, carrots, onions), the margarita pizza and a pizza with ricotta and arugula. Rhonda ordered the pizza with fennel sausage. We could taste the freshness of the ingredients, and I certainly liked the fact that the greens and other veggies came out of the small garden next to the restaurant. My mouth lingered over the last bite of crust because it literally seemed like dessert to me. We ate as much as we could, but ended up with plenty of leftovers.
And now John and I need to negotiate who gets what for lunch today.

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