Saturday, December 1, 2007

Review: Pizzeria Bianco

Visit Pizzeria Bianco on a Saturday night, and you'll understand why, in a special Halloween article, the Republic named it the #1 scariest thing about Phoenix. Visit Pizzeria Bianco on a Wednesday night, however, and you'll swear you're at a completely different restaurant.

Although the quality of the food doesn't differ depending on the day of your visit, your wait time will. Let's play a little game. One of the two photos below was taken on a Wednesday afternoon at 3:50, while the other was taken at the exact same time on a Saturday night. Can you guess which is which?

The first picture--with the Bacon and Bakin' parents flashing a victorious "WE ARE #1!!!"--was indeed taken on a Wednesday afternoon. At 3:50, we were the first to arrive at the restaurant, and the second party didn't show up until a good 10-15 minutes later. The second picture, taken from underneath the awning shown in the first picture, illustrates the madness you will undoubtedly find at the popular pizzeria on Friday or Saturday. Arriving at 3:40 or so, my friends weren't the first people there; they were more like the seventh group to stand in formation. Ten minutes later, you'd think you were smack dab in the middle of a line for that ET ride at Disney World.

Although Bianco doesn't open until 5 p.m., crowds of people gather at its entrance long before opening time just so they can be guaranteed a spot in the first or second seating. The first time I went to Pizzeria Bianco, my family had planned on arriving at 3:45. We turned in the wrong place and couldn't find the street and ran into myriad other problems, but we eventually found it--at 4:15. By this time, we were already about 75-80 people back in the line, but we decided to stick it out. Once the restaurant's doors opened, the lucky people at the start of the line were ushered inside, seated, and served pizza. The rest of us were forced to continue waiting online--another 40-45 minutes--just to add our names to a list, one containing enough parties to constitute a three-hour wait. We decided to stick that out, too, and waited another 45-50 minutes. Figuring we'd have our orders ready far in advance, my family gathered at the menu posted on the window to ogle the descriptions of the doughy disks. My grandfather looked at the menu and decided that nothing looked good. I nearly cried. And yes, I was in a foul mood the rest of the evening.

Flash forward ten months, and my family does things right. We didn't get lost, we arrived at 3:50, we brought entertainment (Sudoku and cards), we even toted soccer-mom-style chairs. First to arrive at Pizzeria Bianco, my family let out a whoop, assumed seats at one of the outdoor tables (stashing the pop-up chairs in the car), and began our wait. The wait was painless, as we had a place to sit, brought stuff to keep us occupied, and were in the shade. I applied these lessons to my next visit to Pizzeria Bianco, w/friends about a month later, bringing the soccer-mom chairs back (which, again, we didn't need), as well as a full-sized, Deluxe Edition of Scrabble. Entertainment in tow, the wait was just about as painless as what I experienced during a mid-week visit.

Now that you're fully prepared for what to expect before you even enter the doors at Pizzeria Bianco, I can start talking about the food. Yes, it's definitely good enough to merit a one-hour wait. A three- or four-hour wait, though? I'd reconsider, especially if it's hot outside.

The menu at Pizzeria Bianco is extremely limited, with two "Small Plates," two salads (three, if there's a seasonal salad available), and six pizzas. There are ten toppings you can add to jazz up your pizza, but you won't find meatballs, Canadian bacon, green pepper, and other Domino's-style toppings here. Unlike eating at Stax, decision-making here is easy because of the small menu.

Bianco's small plates are an antipasto selection and spiedini, which consists of "Italian Fontina wrapped in Prosciutto di Parma, served warm." At $12 and $9 respectively, they're costlier than your typical appetizer. Salads, too, come at a higher price, with the house salad w/mixed greens going for $6 and the caprese carrying a hefty $9 price tag. Fresh bread arrives w/each salad ordered, while bread can be ordered on its own for $2. The bread is crisp on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside, and well worth every calorie.

A sawbuck at Bianco will get you a circle of dough w/marinara sauce on top, while a dollar more will make it a traditional margherita pizza. Pizzas w/more toppings cost up to $14, while toppings such as fresh garlic, Arizona pistachios, Gaeta olives, roasted cremini mushrooms, and anchovies cost anywhere from $1 to $4. Each pie will serve 1-2 people, depending on how hungry you are. I vote for a 1-to-1 ratio for people-to-pizzas, as the leftovers reheat well.

The dining room at Bianco is about 1/65,245 the size of a dining room at the Cheesecake Factory, making it a far more intimate space. With tall ceilings and brick walls, Pizzeria Bianco feels as rustic as it looks. Although the dining room is small, your waiter has a lot of other customers to take care of, so don't expect star treatment. But you didn't decide to eat there expecting white tablecloths and bowtie-clad waiters, anyway, so just sit back and try not to expect too much from you waiter aside from drink refills and a smattering of attention.

Over the course of two visits to Bianco, I sampled the house salad, the caprese, and the spiedini. Composed of fresh mixed greens and nary a leaf of iceberg lettuce, the house salad is similar to what you'd find in upscale restaurants. A light vinaigrette dressed the leaves, but the greens--including some peppery arugula--did the bulk of the talking. Without onions or croutons or anything extraneous, the salad proved that the freshest, simplest ingredients are the basis for the best dishes.

Containing the three colors in the Italian flag, the caprese is a plate of thick, watery slices of house-made mozzarella, large slices of ruby-red tomatoes, and bright leaves of basil. Olive oil and vinegar are perched in the middle of the table, so patrons can garnish their salad as they see fit. Although caprese is a summery dish, it was equally enjoyable in November.

My favorite pre-pizza dish was the spiedini. Atop mixed greens (not mentioned on the menu! yay for unexpected salad!) sit two skewers. Each skewer is poked through a chunk of fontina cheese, all of which is then wrapped up like a birthday present in prosciutto. Slightly sauteed or grilled, the spiedini arrive at the table in a pink-and-green flourish. Inside the slightly caramelized prosciutto hides softly melted cheese which oozes out upon being cut. The contrasts of temperature, texture, and flavor dance inside your mouth.

No matter which pie you order, the standout of the pizza will be the crust. Fired in a wood oven, every pizza is prepared individually by owner/chef Chris Bianco. Like the bread served at the beginning of the meal, the pizza crust is incredibly delicious. A slight crunch on the crust gives way to a chewy center. Char marks freckle the ring of crust at the circumference as well as the bottom of the pizza.

During my two visits to Pizzeria Bianco, I had the opportunity to sample four of the six pizzas on the menu. The first, the marinara, is the plainest pizza on the menu. The sauce overpowered the crust both in flavor and in texture, making an otherwise glorious crust into something floppy and flaccid. (Plus, this pie's less than photogenic, hence it not appearing here.) The addition of cheese and basil, as found on the margherita, makes a world of difference. Less sauce is used on this pizza, meaning the crust stays crisp and the flavors are allowed to complement each other in better proportions. In all honesty, though, I found these pizzas boring.

Margherita + red onion rings

Gutsier choices on the menu include the Rosa and the Wiseguy. The Rosa, sans tomato sauce, is topped w/red onion, parmigiano reggiano, rosemary, and Arizona pistachios. Although I've put walnuts on a pizza before (curry sauce + walnuts = whoa), I'd never thought to crumble up pistachios to use as a topping. The crushed nuts provide an earthy flavor as well as a fantastic contrast in texture. The combination of toppings makes for a light yet satisfying pie.

The Wiseguy, also without red sauce, comes topped w/thick, wood-roasted rings of onion, house-smoked mozzarella, and fennel sausage. A hearty pie, the Wiseguy tastes mostly of the fennel-spiked sausage. It's easy to lose the smoky flavor of the cheese and the roasty flavor of the onion beneath the overpowering punch of fennel. Regardless, that sausage is really, really tasty.

During one visit, I combined the Rosa and the Wiseguy by ordering a Rosa topped w/some of the fennel sausage ($3 extra as a topping). The sausage had the same effect on the Rosa as it had on the Wiseguy, basically wiping out any other flavors I would've tasted otherwise. So, while the fennel tasted good, it was impossible to distinguish the rosemary, cheese, or pistachio. Unless you can taste beyond the sausage, you'd be wise to leave it off your pizza.

These are no desserts at Pizzeria Bianco--unless you consider pizza a dessert, which I certainly do. There is a list of a couple dozen whites and reds, though, so oenophiles will be able to enjoy their pizza w/a glass or a bottle of the good stuff.

But don't feel obligated to order a drink. Unlike those chain pizza restaurants, you don't have to get drunk first in order to enjoy the pizza.

Pizzeria Bianco
623 E. Adams St.
Phoenix, AZ


Heather said...

Have you been to Cibo yet? I love Pizzeria Bianco, but I'm also of the mindset that there aren't many meals on the face of this planet worth a 3-4 hour wait. Cibo is a pretty good alternative on weekends and even though there is often a wait, we're talking more like 20-30 minutes.

PrissyCook said...

Halloween actually proved to be our lucky night scoring a table in two hours!

And Cibo is great. I heart their nutella, banana crepe!