Phoenix Pizza Chef Chris Bianco Reflects on James Beard Win, Restaurants, and his Legacy
Desert landscapes, nondescript brown buildings, arid heat, and carne asada that rivals what’s found in Mexico, yes.
But pizza? The kind topped with crushed tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, baked in an 800-degree wood-burning oven with a crust that bubbles up to greet your impatient taste buds, airy, doughy, and crispy all at once? That’s a Chris Bianco creation.
The pizzaiolo began slinging pies in 1988 from the back corner of Euro Market, which is now AJ’s Fine Foods at Central Avenue and Camelback Road.
On June 13, Bianco won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, his second award from the colloquially nicknamed Oscars of Food since winning Best Chef Southwest in 2003.
But a lot has changed for Bianco and the Phoenix culinary world since Pizzeria Bianco’s humble beginnings. The 34 years of pizzas, followed by focaccia sandwiches at Pane Bianco and hand-rolled pasta at Tratto, prove it.
Pizzeria Bianco’s Heritage Square restaurant opened at Seventh and Adams Streets in downtown Phoenix in 1996. People have waited in line for hours to get their hands on a pie or two ever since.
Specialty pies include the Rosa, topped with rosemary, thinly sliced red onions, and local pistachios, and a classic Margherita made with homemade tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella that oozes as you separate slices, and basil leaves. The Sonny Boy, an ode to Bianco’s late father, is topped with dry-cured soppressata and Gaeta olives.
Bianco jars and sells his tomato sauce made with organic Northern California-grown tomatoes under the name Bianco DiNapoli, a collaboration with Rob DiNapoli.
These days, 60-year-old Bianco, who came to Phoenix by way of the Bronx in New York, is thinking about his legacy. It’s one he hopes to leave for his children Nina, Leo, and Eva, all under 10 years old, his beloved wife, Mia, and the culinary world at large.
“My kids teach me so much about everything, but mostly they call bullshit on my busyness,” Bianco says over the phone. “Don’t get it twisted; I was a kid 10 minutes ago.”
His humility and honesty are apparent in a conversation punctuated by F-bombs and stories of his resilient staff. When Bianco won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur in June, he posted an Instagram photo montage of staff members proudly wearing the silver medal around their necks.
“Faces of winners,” the post was captioned. “I hope each and every one of them, and not all pictured, knows any success we have or had is because of them, their hard work and commitment, from the desks of accounting to the dish pit.”
Bianco is known to celebrate his staff, some of whom have been with the business for over 20 years. His restaurants’ social media accounts are filled with posts like a birth announcement for a sous chef’s new baby boy and an emotional farewell to a talented chef de cuisine leaving for a new role.
As time passes, staff come and go, and things change. It’s a different game since he started slinging pies in the ’80s, he says, for better and for worse.
Bianco and his team access superior ingredients — like burrata from Di Stefano Cheese, a family-owned dairy in Southern California, and heirloom tomatoes from Tutti Frutti Farms, an organic grower in Santa Barbara County — through relationships they’ve built over the years.
Local ingredients are part of the legacy of his food. Bianco prides himself on making the best cuisine possible using the freshest ingredients around.
“My family moved to New York and didn’t have the ingredients they had in Italy. So you use what you have. Like, even pizza started out from old French bread ovens,” Bianco says. As it gained popularity after World War II, “Italian-Americans who had never been there started to get their swag a little bit and build their palates.”
He remembers when it was almost impossible to find arugula from a small local grower, something we now take for granted at the grocery store. Though fine ingredients are easier to access, food and labor costs are up. The pandemic only made things harder in an industry where social interaction, restaurant atmosphere, and Bianco’s trademark style of found items in cozy minimal settings, are key.
Like other restaurant teams, Bianco and his staff changed everything about their service to stay afloat during the worst of COVID-19. They’re still shipping pizzas across the country via Goldbelly, where a cool $130 will get you four of his best-selling pies, albeit frozen.
“We’re still reeling from the pandemic,” Bianco says.
Seth Sulka joined Bianco as managing partner and chief operating officer in 2009, when the brand encompassed just the Heritage Square location and Pane Bianco. Overseeing day-to-day operations, Sulka helped the company navigate the pandemic.
“But I don’t know anything about cooking; the amazing food is all Chris,” he says.
Supporters of Bianco’s restaurants also raised money through a GoFundMe campaign, unbeknownst to Bianco and his team, who thanked the group for their support, but asked that the fundraiser be shut down when they heard about it.
The entire industry endured a difficult time, and Pizzeria Bianco was not alone in needing the community’s help, Sulka says. They used the funds sent to them for employee payroll.
Bianco is thankful for loyal partners and staff like Sulka, but wonders about the bigger picture post-pandemic.
“We march the streets because we want to pay people well, give them a good wage and insurance, but we still want a 99-cent cheeseburger,” Bianco says.
Just days after winning his James Beard Award, Bianco opened a new Pizzeria Bianco location in Los Angeles on June 16, serving New York-style slices to Californians, with plans to launch a dinner menu centered around the six Napoletana pizzas he has become famous for over the last three decades.
But the most expensive thing on the menu could be of the greatest value, he explains, because the restaurant takes good care of its people or buys from discerning sources. At the new downtown L.A. location, those sources are places like Cairnspring Mills, a Washington state stone mill that supplies Pizzeria Bianco’s flour.
“There’s a farmer behind it and a story to it. It’s not just being stored in a warehouse for years,” says Marco Angeles, the head chef at Pizzeria Bianco LA.
He met Bianco back in 2019 at the Manufactory, a 40,000-square-foot space that housed Tartine Bianco, a collaboration between San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery and Pizzeria Bianco, in addition to other restaurants and bars. It was open for less than a year before closing in December 2019. The new Pizzeria Bianco hails out of the same space at the Row DTLA.
Angeles and Bianco first bonded over their laid-back approach and passion for food. “We were the only two guys who would drop enough F-bombs,” Angeles says. When Bianco first approached Angeles about opening a Pizzeria Bianco in the old Tartine Bianco location, “I was like oh shit. You’ve got some balls, man.”
But lunch service is going well so far, Angeles says, with long lines and tickets for 18-inch pies, New York-style slices, and ciabatta sandwiches that just don’t stop. A good problem to have. Angeles plans to open for dinner by the end of July.
Meanwhile, Bianco bounces back and forth between Phoenix and Los Angeles after returning from Chicago, where the James Beard Awards were held. In Chicago, he spent time with Rene Andrade, the owner and head chef at Grand Avenue’s highly acclaimed Bacanora, a tiny Sonoran-style restaurant that earned a finalist spot in the Best New Restaurant category.
Though Bianco is a culinary heavyweight recognized by Oprah Winfrey, Rachael Ray, and the New York Times, he is inspired by many local chefs and restaurants. Off the top of his head, he names Chadwick Price and Blaise Faber at Valentine, TJ Culp and Esther Noh at Restaurant Progress, and Charlene Badman at FnB, who won a James Beard for Best Chef Southwest in 2019.
Giovanni Scorzo, the owner of Scottsdale’s Andreoli Italian Grocer, was a finalist for this year’s Best Chef Southwest award. Though the award ultimately went to Fernando Olea of Sazón in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bianco took the opportunity to recognize Scorzo in his acceptance speech.
“He was a mentor of mine when I was younger and is very talented,” Bianco says. “It’s great to see someone that deserved a lot more light as an elder in the community, to finally see people recognize his immense skill set and what he brings to the table.”
Bianco worked with Scorzo for a couple of years in the ’90s at his Italian eatery Babbo Ganzo in Santa Fe. No stranger to the kitchen, 62-year-old Scorzo began cooking when he was just 11 in Calabria, Italy. Andreoli, his Scottsdale eatery and market, is an ode to his mother, a chef with the same maiden name.
Scorzo serves Calamaretti al Sacrestano, grilled calamari flown in fresh from San Francisco, hand-rolled fusilli pasta in tender pork rib tomato sauce, and house-cured bresaola and carpaccio from his homey restaurant. His daughter, Francesca Scorzo, helps bake the bread daily and the market sells grocery items including seasoned salt and natural pizza flour imported straight from Italy.
“I wished for a better outcome after so many years,” Scorzo says of his James Beard upset, but has fond memories of mentoring Bianco.
“It was very fun working with Chris,” he says in a thick Italian accent. “We used to go around to try and find a restaurant to eat at on Sundays, when we were closed, but they were all disgusting. So we would go back to the restaurant to cook and eat.”
Bianco saw Scorzo as a purist who didn’t accept mistakes, Scorzo says. He was receptive to learning about pizza, pasta, and bread from a perfectionist and treated customers like family when Scorzo wasn’t at the restaurant. Infamous pizza aside, that welcoming personality is part of what made Bianco such a success, another mark of his legacy.
“This is my cellphone. You can call me anytime” he says. “I’m always down to talk.”
For someone as busy and highly acclaimed as Bianco, he doesn’t have the usual publicist, and his authenticity shines through.
“I talk to everyone with the same amount of respect. As crazy as I can be, I’m honest,” he says.
His brother Marco Bianco, who makes the dough for Pizzeria Bianco, remembers growing up with Chris, a popular guy who everyone knew in the Bronx.
“People would meet me and go, ‘You’re Chris Bianco’s brother?'” he says over the phone while kneading dough for dinner service.
Marco, who grew up entrenched in his father Leonard’s graphic design business, making labels for wine and liquor, is happy to be behind the scenes in the next generation of family business. Leonard, who passed away last year at 94 years old, was a painter at heart.
He painted the labels for the Bianco DiNapoli tomato sauces and the Dos Cabezas Pink, a rosé from southern Arizona. The latter was originally a painting Leonard gifted to his bride Francesca on their wedding day in 1959. His still-life paintings can be found all over the Bianco restaurants, including six at the new L.A. location, a minimalist space reminiscent of the beloved Heritage Square restaurant in downtown Phoenix.
Creativity is simply part of the family.
Bianco’s mother, Francesca, worked as a fashion illustrator and designer after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She took care of everyone around her and worked hard at her craft, Marco says, finishing final stitches on the subway.
From close family to fellow chefs, Chris Bianco has had plenty of ingenuity to draw from.
“My brother was surrounded by all these people who inspired him,” Marco says. He wasn’t content to just bake pepperoni pies like the New York pizza places he grew up around and worked in.
“He took a simple thing and tried to raise it to a higher level,” Marco says.
And while the James Beard Award and downtown Los Angeles location present new challenges to rise to, Marco says his brother enjoys the pressure. For all the buzz surrounding him, Bianco is laid back, priorities in place.
“As I get older, what I love to eat is food made by people I love. Anything I don’t have to clean up is ideal,” he says, pausing for a moment. But amid heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, the best ingredients he can get his hands on, he likes to keep it simple at home.
“Nothing too complicated,” Bianco says. “I’ll take a butter tortilla that my kids make me.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect correct information regarding who organized a fundraiser for the restaurant.