Dear Slice: Arizona Pizza Pilgrimage
We've some pizza gold from the Slice mailbox. If you saw our Pizza Obsessives interview with Lance yesterday, you'll have eagerly been awaiting the followup—Lance describes his visit to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and gives us a first look at Flagstaff's Pizzicletta, which of course is the subject of Caleb Schiff's column "Building a Pizzeria". What I'm saying is that we have a cosmic pizza convergence here.
"You're driving to Phoenix... for pizza?" That's how everyone used to say it, with shock in their voice. But with all the press that my favorite place in the world, Pizzeria Bianco, has gotten the last couple years, it's morphed a little. Now it's, "You're driving to Phoenix for...pizza?" Like they're a little concerned for my sanity.
Yes, my wife and I are driving from Los Angeles to Phoenix for pizza and pizza alone. And with the new lunch hours, the door is now open for us to up the ante, double down on the Bianco, and get our first taste of Caleb Schiff's Pizzicletta in Flagstaff, too.
9AM - If we're going to make it to Pizzicletta for a second dinner we need to get into Bianco early, so we actually leave on time for once. With some help from our big three bands (Radiohead, Pavement and U2 if you're keeping score), 7.5 hours of driving fly by. As much as 7.5 hours through the desert can "fly by" that is.
4:30PM - We arrive in Phoenix. Chris had already stepped away from the oven the last time we were here, but the line was still godawful. This is a completely different experience. There's no line at all. Granted, it's Friday afternoon (and it's 109 degrees outside), but arriving at 4:30 used to mean you could expect to eat around 7. This new Pizzeria Bianco feels...strange. Like it's just another place to eat instead of pizza royalty.
Our appetizer, the Margherita, looks like it's the real deal but the crust is hollowed out and dry and the flavor is a little underwhelming by Bianco standards. The overall dryness saps some flavor from the delicate tomato sauce and the sparse (but still delicious) house-made mozzarella. I bite into another end and it shatters into a hundred little pieces. Something is wrong here.
The crust on the next two pies, the Biancoverde (fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta, arugula) and the Rosa (red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, AZ pistachios), is a little better. It's hard to argue with top notch cheeses mixing it up with olive oil or with my single favorite flavor combination ever created (The Rosa). But something is still off. It's all pretty good, but lauding Pizzeria Bianco for merely good pizza is like congratulating Superman on his victory in the 100-yard dash.
6PM - We get on the road to Flagstaff and I have an existential pizza crisis. Has the food suffered with Chris away from the ovens? Was it the heat? Have I had too many other amazing pizzas in other cities? Has my palate just gotten better? Was it ever really as good as I remembered? Did the fact that Chris was nowhere to be seen have an effect on my brain? Was I loving the experience of having a legend lording over my pies more than the pizza itself? I know this sounds ridiculous, but my world is rocked.
8:30PM - Flagstaff seemed like a quaint city in a surprisingly lush part of Arizona... until we turned on to Phoenix St. Then it looked like Austin, Texas, Jr. Lots of bars, music and people. That was the first of many surprises at Pizzicletta.
If you've read any of Caleb's blogs you know he's described his pizzeria as intimate. That's usually just a codeword for small, but in this case the intimacy is in the interaction you have with the pizzaiolo. No matter where you are, you just have to turn your head and Caleb's either making a pie a mere six feet from you or he's out in the dining area serving a pizza he just pulled from his beautiful Stefano Ferrara oven.
Here comes the pies. Caleb seems like one of the nicest people you're ever going to meet, but his pizzas are anything but laid back. They're bold... aggressive even. The tomato on his Margherita is robust and earthy—much more present and prevalent than you'd find on most Neapolitan pies. I quickly realize that the sauce needs to be that big to balance out the cornicone, which is large and in charge—in size as well as in flavor. Biting through a slightly crunchy, perfectly-charred outer layer, your mouth sinks into a big, airy pillow of bread that you feel like you could chew on for days. Then your taste buds get called up. Rustic and with more than a hint of grain, the crust has as much flavor as I can remember in a Neapolitan pie.
The Margherita was something I really enjoyed, but the next pie, the Amore Oi Mari was, without hesitation, one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten. First you get sweet marscarpone fusing with a sharp Pecorino Romano under bitter baby arugula and salty prosciutto... and then this incredible meyer lemon olive oil from Queen Creek, AZ, cuts through it all like a sword and scrambles the flavors into something new and completely refreshing. Caleb's got a great story about how he came upon the inspiration for the pizza, but trust me, it would be much better if you just let him give you the scoop as he's serving you your very own Amore.
I imagine that just about everybody coming in from out of town brings up Chris Bianco's name to Caleb. I know I did. With the Arizona connection, it probably can't be helped. But even though it's a grossly unfair to compare someone who's been open for a month with the most famous pizzamaker in the country, in this case... it makes perfect sense. Caleb's this incredibly passionate guy who's chosen to express himself by serving his unique vision of pizza—just like another guy used to do 150 miles due south. And just like at Pizzeria Bianco, every part of Pizzicletta, from the space, to the service, to the food, feels like it's an extension of Caleb.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the pizza's pretty great, too.
12:30PM - I've been to Phoenix five times, but this is the first time I've been able to get to Chris's sandwich (and now dinner) place, Pane Bianco. I don't have any pictures of the tomato, basil, mozzarella sandwich I had there because it's take-out only and I was afraid the cheese was going to melt as we dined in the 109 degree heat. You'll just have to imagine an 8-inch wheel of Chris's amazing fresh mozzarella encased in a fresh, wood-fired flatbread.
It was imperative that I only eat half of the massive sandwich to save room for dinner, but five minutes after my first bite the whole thing was gone. Crap. Our appetites now blown, we went to the nearest air-conditioned mall and walked around for a couple hours in a desperate attempt to revive our hunger.
5PM - After just a half-hour wait (on a Saturday?!), we sit down for what I assume will be my last Pizzeria Bianco for a quite a while. There's no way I can put the miles in for "pretty good pizza". The Rosa arrives to start things off and very quickly I realize... things are different. This crust has that same buoyant spring that I remember so well. And the flavor's different, now it's much more pronounced but it's blending in perfectly with the toppings. This is exactly how Bianco used to taste. Whoa. In Latin I believe the phrase is... "shit just got real".
Now the Wiseguy (fennel sausage, roasted onion, smoked mozzarella) and the Sonny Boy (mozzarella, salami, Gaeta olives, tomato) hit the table. The two pies are stacked with thick layers of intense flavors, but with the crust now firing on all cylinders, suddenly everything is working in concert to become something... more. That's when I remember my favorite thing about Bianco—the balance. You never think about how good a single aspect of the pizza is, just how amazing these pies are as a whole.
As we walk out, I'm relieved. My favorite pizza in the world still exists. And it still resides in Phoenix, Arizona.
6PM - I measure the ride home and it's 700 percent less fun than the ride there. Then I start to think about how precarious pizza can be. How one questionable batch of dough can throw off even the best pizzerias. And then I think about how in awe I am of Caleb, that he can already be working at such a high level. He's chosen a long, tough road where you have to give it your all every day, but he's ready for the big time. There aren't any pizza trips to Phoenix anymore—just pizza trips to Arizona.
1AM - We're home. But after spending 18 of the last 36 hours in a car, I have one last thing to attend to before I crash. Five minutes later, I pull out the four slices of pizza we took home from Bianco. They're piping hot. People can argue all they want about who has the best pizza in Los Angeles, but tonight I'm fairly certain it's me, and me alone.