Cooking with Chris Bianco of Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco


[Photographs: tempepizzagirl]

Getting a table at Pizzeria Bianco is a challenge. On any given night, most diners will wait at least two hours. The most reliable strategy is to start lining up in front of the restaurant around 3:30 p.m. (on a weeknight that is—I've never had the courage to wait in the weekend lines). It opens at 5 p.m., and you hope you've arrived early enough to be seated at one of the few tables.

Getting into a cooking class with Chris Bianco can be just as tricky.

Bianco, who has had to step back from hands-on pizza-making due to allergies, teaches a couple of classes each year through Les Gourmettes Cooking School, which is operated by Barbara Fenzl. This year's topic was holiday brunch. Fenzl emails her fall brochure to those on her emailing list and stresses the importance of registering for Bianco's class immediately: It's limited to 16 people.

In past years, Bianco's class has filled within 3 hours of the email. The tricky part is that you have to drive to her school with check or cash in hand: There's no internet registration and no phone registration. Fortunately, I was checking my email only a half an hour after Fenzl emailed out her update. I dropped everything and raced to her school with my registration. I got in!

bianco_verticalmirror250.jpgA few weeks later, the big day arrived. As I drove there, I was excited, thrilled and even a bit nervous. Not only was Bianco awarded the James Beard Best Chef: Southwest Award in 2003 but his pies were rated best pizza in the U.S. by Bon Appetit, Rachael Ray, and even Oprah. He's been featured in the New York Times, Gourmet, Martha Stewart Living, and GQ. Noted baking authority Peter Reinhart dedicated an entire section of his pizza book, American Pie, to Chris Bianco.

Oh, and Bianco and his pizzeria have a pretty big fan club at Slice, too.

Bianco based the class menu on the freshest local ingredients: a farm egg frittata, Sonoran flapjacks, and chicken and sage sausage. Throughout each demonstration, he would tell stories of each ingredient and where it originated. The organic eggs were bought from Kenny at the Camelback Farmer's Market, the Sonoran wheat flour was milled specially for him earlier that day, the purple garlic was planted from seeds he'd found in Italy. This is a man who is genuinely connected to his food.

bianco_flapjacks250.jpgAll the preparations were straightforward, simple, and without fuss—a reflection of Bianco himself. As he continued to teach, I realized that I wasn't learning about how to properly cook a frittata or measure out the exact proportions of ingredients but was learning about Bianco's food philosophy, something that is tied to his being, his essence. It was about taking wonderfully natural ingredients and preparing them in a simple way that is both satisfying and nourishing. It was about knowing who was growing your food and where it came from. It was about being true to yourself and your food.

So what is this living pizza legend like? He was warm, gracious, and charmingly modest. He shared stories of his childhood in New York and how his elderly neighbor, a Holocaust survivor, would regularly make him scrambled eggs, the best he's ever eaten. He talked about his love of history, the only class he paid attention to as a kid. He was relaxed and seemed genuinely pleased to be sharing this cooking experience with us. By taking this class, I realized what makes his pizzas so remarkable: Bianco himself.