Chris Bianco Talks Pizza, His New Restaurant in Tucson, and Beyond
Chris Bianco is probably the most famous pizza name in the country, so when he announced that he was opening a second pizzeria in Tucson it was a very big deal. But if you've been monitoring what's been going on in Phoenix the last two-and-a-half years, it also wasn't a complete shock. Since Bianco was forced to take a step back from the oven, he's been slowly expanding his reach.
His sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, started serving dinner after a very cool expansion, and he opened his first trattoria, Italian Restaurant (we'll have much more on that one in the coming weeks). He also partnered with Rob DiNapoli on a line of organic tomatoes. Oh, and he joined up with Jamie Oliver on a string of Union Jacks restaurants in London. All of that in addition to keeping a firm hand on the Pizzeria Bianco wheel. In short, he's been a busy man.
I don't think I've met a more verbose, passionate, or profane (in the best possible way) guy, and sound bites don't do him justice. Instead, I'm going to let him do the talking himself. Here's what a world class pie man is setting out to change his corner of the world.
Congratulations on Tucson!
I didn't know it would be such a big deal, man, but I'm excited about it.
I guess the big question is...why now?
The one complaint I always hated hearing was, "oh, you made me wait this long for my pizza" or, "I won't wait three hours," so if there was ever an opportunity to feed more people and not compromise, I was always down with that. It was impossible when I had to make every pizza, but now I've spent the last two-and-a-half years learning to train people...sharing the little bit that I know about something. That's the fun part. And now, a little over an hour's drive down the I-10, we'll get to see if we can do something at the highest level that's the same and yet different.
How do you do that? How do you train people to live up to your standards?
These kids coming into the restaurant business are more traveled, they know what's out there thanks to the all the blogs and social media and the cooking shows. But they still need to be mentored. My thing always was, and still is, teaching repetition. There's no substitute for that. People are always looking for secrets, but there's no secret ingredient to amazing pizza except great ingredients and experience. I've always said that. And I think there's a great honor learning by doing something over and over again, so I'm just trying to pass that on.
So much of pizza happens way before you start to shape it. You've already researched ingredients, you've procured the finest organic flour, you've fermented the dough properly, and you've made sure your wood-burning oven's to temperature. Now, with all that goodness already happening, you receive this ticket that says Margherita and you engage in this process. And when you've learned your craft and you're cooking 300 of something a night, there's almost a dance or a cadence to it. You become, essentially, this incredibly efficient assembly line where you're in this rhythm, except you're making something at the highest level. It takes a lot of work to get there, but that's what excites me, to take an ideal and inspire young people to take something farther than I ever could imagine.
You're known for getting your hands on every aspect of your food. How did you get comfortable inviting other people into the process?
Back in the day I had to make all the dough, I had to make the mozzarella, I had to make every aspect of it. That's just the way it was, I was just starting out, I was a kid, I was broke. But then other people came into play, like Schreiner's down the street. They make great sausage, just as good as if not better than me, so why not have other people focus on the parts they're good at, you know? We helped them procure ingredients and worked with them to get it to our standard, but then it's like, "okay, you guys make it." If you can make it better than me and I need it, I'm buying it. And then we become part of a food community. It's a special relationship. You know, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, everyone plays a part in this.
There's also a danger to making everything yourself. You can make your own charcuterie and you can make your own bundt cake, or whatever the fuck it is, but just because you can doesn't mean you should. If you have eleven kids and you neglect one, their upbringing might be compromised. It's the same with food. The more things you do, you're going to hit a point of compromise. If we focus on what we're good at and we bring in ingredients made by uncompromising people like Herb Eckhouse at La Quercia, stuff that's made at a high level...well then you've got something. I always say, unless you can make rain you're going to need help.
Community seems really important to you.
The reality is when you look at the things going on (note: we spoke a couple days after the horrific attacks in Boston), pizza is such a small thing, a small blip. What makes it special and what makes it matter at all is the people connected to it. The chef becomes that last link, that thing that puts it out in the community. That's one thing in my inner circle, I think the people that really know me know that I could never give them enough credit. It was always clear to me that I was just a link in the chain. We're not making anything unless we have relationships with our farmers, our millers, the people that grow our tomatoes. What it comes down to is, if you grow something beautiful as a farmer and as an artisan, I'll do my best not to fuck it up. That was my whole career and it still is.
That idea to partner up to make great ingredients, is that where Bianco DiNapoli sprang from?
Yeah. I love San Marzano tomatoes. They were great when I used them, they're still great, but I thought we could do a pretty good job and create something that was consistent with a spec that was very good for chefs. I've opened up a lot of tomatoes since I started in '88, and I have a pretty good idea of the viscosity you need for the juice in the can, the flavor profile, and the salinity. That unity is just something that made sense to me, so I think we have a pretty good chance of making a special product that anyone can use, not just us. We get to share with them with the community.
San Marzano is legendary, period. But who's to say that tomatoes grown in a place like Argentina aren't the most amazing? Maybe they are. Anyway, I wanted a tomato that was specific to America, where you could essentially taste the terroir of the place they're grown, in this case Yolo County in California. And if people start digging into it a little, they'll see that we use Pacific sea salt, not Sicilian, and that the basil's from California. The taste is very specific to the region, the same way it is with wine. And the connection to a place, hopefully that's something people can celebrate.
The whole project seems like a pretty big undertaking.
What I've been trying to do is find ways I can affect the game, you know what I'm saying? What do you do if you're an athlete and you can throw 95 miles an hour and then one day maybe you're throwing 86 and they take you deep? There's a physicality aspect to this business, and I had a little health issue that forced me to kind of step away a little bit, but it was a blessing in the way that I got to ask myself, "what do I do now?"
People wondered what the pizza was going to be like after you took a step back, so I imagine there's going to be a couple weeks where everyone freaks out again.
We make pizzas at three different places now (Pizzeria Bianco, Pane Bianco, Italian Restaurant) and it's kind of funny when people say, "it tastes different" or, "it's the same as it always is," because every pizza I've ever made or even been a part of over the last thirty years was unique. They could be from the same batch of dough but every one of them was in a different hot or cool spot in the oven, and each one had its own personality.
I never mastered it, there's no such thing as a pizza master to me. There's no such thing as a bread master. We're in a relationship with something that's alive and could fuck us at any given moment if we disrespect it. There are a lot of factors that have to align for this to go well. That's the beauty of it, it's a metaphor for relationships. The relationships we have with our farmers, our customers, our partners...these things teach us that there's nothing in this process that allows us to be a single entity. It really takes a village. And in some ways, the pizza is better than it's ever been now because of the repetition and the experience we've taken with us. Plus, we're sourcing ingredients better, and I have stronger relationships with my suppliers.
Each restaurant you've opened seems to have a different personality. Have you worked out the design in Tucson yet?
To me, spaces are kind of like ingredients. Ingredients always tell you what they want to be and I think space is pretty much the same thing. This building that we're going into, it's a historic warehouse dating back to 1919 with soaring ceilings and beautiful wood beams. The walls tell a story, the patchwork shows a journey. And when something feels good and you get clarity in terms of what it might look like and you can see how the bar would look and what the relationship of the oven will be, that's a good thing. But I think the biggest thing is how a space makes you feel. And this one felt like our pizzeria. It's part of a downtown revitalization, the same as Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. And even though it's got dirt floors now and there's a lot of work to be done, there's a beauty to it.
What about the menu? Do you plan on making any changes or bringing in any influences from Tucson?
For us, some of the things we use are even closer to the source now. A lot of the wood that we use is from out there. Ingredient-wise, the pistachios that we use for the Rosa come from Santa Cruz county and we're even closer now. There could be a few things though, especially with small plates, where if something local is special, it could come into play. If somebody has some beautiful goats and we roast one for Saturday lunch, maybe some of that will make it's way over. I don't know.
As far as pizzas go, I want to continue to make things that people can relate to. I've invented nothing in my life, I just try to do things that hopefully people can just enjoy and not think so hard about. It freaks me out today, everyone's a pizza expert. They're worried about the upskirt, the downskirt, and the fucking sideskirt...but what we do has an incredible transparency to it. It's not like we just make a pizza and slide it under the door and see how unbelievable it is. I want to hopefully get people to look into it and see all the hands involved in it, all the people involved. And that's always been the way, it takes so many people, man, to make this happen. And to finally put it on the plate, it's like Christmas Day in a way. It's quite the journey.
Have you figured out how you're going to staff the new location yet?
We'll be looking at both moving people over and hiring in Tucson. But we have such an incredible staff between the pizzeria and Pane Bianco and Italian Restaurant, some of them have been with me for 20 years, and like I said, we've already been doing pizza in all the restaurants. I don't want to say it's a best-kept secret, but I know it's all the same pizza dough because my brother Marco makes it all at Pane. So if we're running a two-and-a-half hour wait at Pizzeria Bianco, a lot of times you can get the same pizza at Pane in fifteen minutes.
Time management is suddenly going to be a big deal for you I guess.
I'm looking forward to spending quite a bit of time in Tucson and in Phoenix, too. And then I spend time in London (on Union Jacks, his partnership with Jamie Oliver), that's been a fantastic experience and it'll continue to be a big part of my life. I'm excited, I think it's a really special time. I stood in front of that oven as long as I physically could, and I'm excited about the next part of my life. I just got married in February and I'm looking forward to enjoying life and celebrating that with my family and our customers. We really look forward to being part of the community and feeding people.
Thirty years into this journey, what's driving you?
My dad who will be 86 in June, he's an incredibly gifted painter (note: he did the amazing art on the Bianco DiNapoli cans) and he paints every day still. When we find ways to grow into our life a little, where we're still relevant, I think that keeps us alive. It comes down to, "what do you have left to offer?"
I've been really blessed and incredibly fortunate that I can keep paying it forward and not let people down. I would be lying if I said that wasn't relevant to me. I hear people saying "I don't give a shit, I don't care, I already proved myself," but I always know that I care, probably a little bit too much, what people think. I know everyone has a perspective and that's cool, but I have to keep fighting for what I think is the good fight. I have to be comfortable with my path. And hopefully people find something positive in that.
About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.