Monday, June 16, 2008

Not as good as liliko'i butter, but...

Exhausted, sore, my head aching with a hundred different worries and gripes, I finally have the place to myself after ten hours of listening to a mixed bag of 80s pop up front, rap in the dish room, and the ever-changing sounds (sometimes literal) that accompany Frank anytime he’s in the prep kitchen. One song had the catchy title of “Fist Fuck”, I actually recognized it from an Al Pacino movie called Cruising that I saw more than twenty years ago…it’s that kind of song.
I pick up my favorite broom and carry it toward the pizza bench, pausing at the XM radio to change the channel. The only thing that sounds good right now is classical, and as I start sweeping my way back toward the dish room the Mozart that had been playing ends and is replaced by a pleasant little dance number which sounds familiar but not. I stop again at the XM and look at the screen, “Tchaikovsky – Polonaise” it glows. A polonaise is a dance, but the word brought to mind an emulsion of egg and oil with pineapple; it would be the base sauce for numerous Jell-O concoctions containing cottage cheese that are seen only at funeral pot lucks in the South. Polonaise would be distantly related to vaginaise, a mix of Dijon mustard and mayo that I was introduced to during my short tour of duty at Le Bistro.
This is what happens to your brain when you stand next to a blistering hot oven all day, every day. Stay in school.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pizzeria Bianco

Thursday morning by about 8:30 I was pretty sure I was going to go. I’d been talking about it for years, more and more in the past few weeks and I knew I needed to go now. The time was right, my motivation was flagging a bit at work, I was bored, and I knew I wouldn’t get another chance until after summer. Plus, I had to know if it was true. Was the best pizza in the U.S. being made in Phoenix?
By 10:20 am I was on my way through the Mescalero Apache reservation, driving past (with regret) dueling fry bread stands on opposite sides of the highway, their spray painted plywood signs proclaiming both to be real Apache fry bread.
Alamogordo I got to avoid thanks to the new bypass. Alamogordo is one of those towns that I always wonder why they were founded in the first place. Throughout the west, certainly the southwest, there are hundreds of towns like it that had to spring up only because a hundred and forty years ago someone’s wagon broke down or their oxen died. They couldn’t make that last push across the desert to California and they sure as hell weren’t going to make it back to Kentucky, so here they stayed and built and lived.
Las Cruces was the usual cluster fuck to negotiate. A small town pushed to the second largest city in New Mexico in just a few years, it is always under construction and highways start in dirt fields and end in two lane one-way city streets with little warning.
Next come Deming and Lordsburg, both unremarkable from the interstate, and truck stop pauses to refuel, piss and buy junk and soda (all dietary rules are suspended while on road trips…it’s in the Geneva Convention, look it up).
About thirty miles across the Arizona line a sign announces that I am entering Texas Canyon and suddenly I am in the landscape that surely must have inspired Radiator Springs in Cars. Bare rock piled on bare rock in bizarre towers, the jutting tail fins just visible with the right mindset.
Tucson, bigger than I expected, but with an alarming lack of gas stations on the west side of town (they were there, I saw later, just hidden behind piles of orange barrels) and then the home stretch to Phoenix. Phoenix, a city I’d never had any interest in visiting, my sole contact with it had been to change planes there last year en route to Mexico, and nothing about that experience had impressed me. But it is the home of Chris Bianco and his Pizzeria Bianco. Chris Bianco is said to be a high school dropout from New York City who moved to Phoenix after winning a ticket to “anywhere in the U.S.” He has said that he still doesn’t know why he picked Phoenix, but that he felt a connection to the place as soon as he arrived and had soon moved there.
Pizzeria Bianco is located in the Heritage Square area of downtown, and finding it was no problem, exit I-10 at Washington, go west to 7th and then North to Adams. Then be prepared to turn around and follow the simple directions from the guy working the parking lot to find the nearby parking garage. The place is busy as hell and the small parking lot will be full.
I arrived around 6 pm, local time, and walked up to the front door of the 1920s era machine shop that now houses Pizzeria Bianco. Folks waiting outside at the shaded picnic tables that sit between the front door and the sidewalk told me that I needed to get on the wait list and to “get ready.” I assured them that I was and walked in…and damn near froze. There he was, the legend himself. Said by some, including the New York Times writer Ed Levine, to make the best pizza in the United States, Chris Bianco won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef, Southwest in 2003, the only pizzaiolo to ever do so. Legend says that he makes every pizza that comes out of his restaurant, that he will not make pies to go because they just aren’t as good after steaming in a box, that he makes his own mozzarella, that he uses local products as much as possible and that if he can’t be present at his place, he closes.
The legends are true. There he was, in the flesh behind his counter making pizzas in front of a large round wood-fired oven. The hostess was beautiful and courteous and I could scarcely concentrate on what she was telling me as the man looked up at me from his station and gave me one of those sneering Bronx nods that says, “Hey, how you doin’?”
Two and a half hour wait for one? On a Thursday? All I could thinks was, 'How fantastic is that?' He’s been doing this for about fifteen years and to have that kind of a wait on a weekday is incredible. I am more than happy to go back outside and walk next door to Bar Bianco, an old brick house that has been converted into a beer and wine bar waiting area for the pizzeria. The bar is awesome. People are in every room, sitting on couches, playing cards and board games, several girls wait on the front porch, and families wait at the tables in the yard between the two buildings. The place is just beautiful
My Session in hand I pick a bench in front of the pizzeria and fire off a few text messages to my kids and a couple of friends who have just found out where I am and are trying to fathom why. The people-watching is great here and no one seems to mind the wait. A couple of women approach and one goes inside and checks with the hostess. She exits and tells her friend of the three-hour wait and her friend says, “No, no pizza is worth that.” It’s all I can do not to say something. I have driven nearly eight hours, and have already spent a hundred dollars (mostly in gas) to arrive here to be told that I must wait, not to mention the awkward feeling of hoping that the pizza is truly the best I’ve ever had while hoping like hell that mine is better…it better be worth it.
A little bit later a woman arrives with two kids. She goes in and comes back out and again the discussion about the wait. A man arrives with a poodle in his arms. The poodle is wearing a “service dog” vest, and the man walks into the restaurant with it. He is soon back outside. The questionable service dog, nor his very healthy-looking master, will be seated in the pizzeria, but the chef will break his rule and make something to go. Another group arrives and the lone representative enters and returns. “How long’s the wait,” his companions want to know.
“Not sure,” he lies. “We can go next door though and get a drink.” He knows how long the wait is going to be, he’s been here before, he knows it’s worth it, but knows that his friends will rebel and insist on going elsewhere if he tells the truth. Another indicator that this will be good.
Within an hour and a half I am called in and given a seat at the counter (love counters) at the same time as a guy named Gary. Gary is from Houston originally, though he works and lives in Dallas now. He works for a company that manufactures and sells electronics. Gary is very talkative. Next to him are two older ladies, both transplants from New York City. Gary strikes up a conversation with them and they are more than happy to tell him all that they know about Bianco, “He won the James Beard award,” one says. “The first time I came here, he was closed, on vacation. Takes his whole crew someplace every year,” the other says. Umberto, the bartender, tells me that he’s been with Bianco for about fourteen years. Any of you in the restaurant business know what this says about Chris Bianco.
I order a Peroni and the mozzarella plate to start. Bianco does make his own mozzarella and it is stunning. Chewy, mild with just the right amount of salt and smoked in the oven the cheese is nothing short of amazing. The mozzarella that most of us are used to is shit by comparison. It’s like eating nothing but Wonder bread your whole life and then being given a piece of warm fresh baked artisanal bread, which the mozzarella is served with, along with beautiful, flavorful tomatoes and basil with a drizzle of olive oil.
By the time my pie arrives, the two ladies from New York have been replaced by a woman and her two kids. This really isn’t a place for most small kids, only because of the wait, but she said that they had checked out the museum next door since getting on the wait list.
I ordered the Margherita and it was fantastic. So simple, yet so good, give me this every time. Yeah, complex and challenging food has its place and I do enjoy it, but it’s not what I want to eat or cook on a regular basis. This is. Tomato, mozzarella, and basil on a perfectly charred, smoky crust. Perfect. As I eat I watch the room, several that have entered after me are clearly regulars as the staff greets them warmly and soon after Gary finishes eating and leaves one of these folks is seated next to me.
Mr. Roth is dapper looking fellow in his 60s wearing a bow tie and one of the few men on the planet to be able to pull off wearing pleated slacks. He and Umberto exchange a very complex hand shake and as he pours his Coke from the glass bottle he’s been served into his glass he wants to know how I like the food, have I been here before and doesn’t seem fazed in the least by my eight hour drive just to get here. “Good for you,” he says and goes on to say that he’s been a regular for years, since the place opened in the mid 90s. As his salad arrives and I order my second pie, Mr. Roth confides in me that his wife gets their produce from the same local purveyor as Bianco. “Chris gets the best stuff though,” he says without rancor.
My second pie is a Wiseguy; a white pie topped with mozzarella, roasted onions and locally made sausage. I actually groaned with the first bite and Mr. Roth was very happy that I liked it. I love that proprietary interest customers like Mr. Roth bring to the table, as concerned about my enjoying the food and experience as the staff was. Only intending to eat one or two slices of the Wiseguy I finished off half of it before giving it over to Umberto to box. I finished off my second Peroni and ordered an Americano, strangely there are no desserts at Bianco’s. Mr. Roth leaned close to tell me that there used to be an old lady who did the desserts, but that it was always the dessert’s not ready yet, or the dessert’s already gone, so no desserts anymore.
No matter, I thought as I sipped my coffee and Mr. Roth got started on his antipasto platter of roasted vegetables. Around the counter, and the room, people were laughing, sharing food and having a good time, Chris Bianco watching with a slight smile, standing in front of his wood burning oven, a row of pies just visible inside its mouth. Turning to look out the window at my back I could see about twelve or so people waiting to get in, drinking their wine or beer and enjoying each other’s company.
I lingered a little longer, not quite ready to leave, but not wanting to hold up a seat that someone else could be enjoying, so I said good-bye to Umberto and Mr. Roth and stood and made for the door. On the way out, I looked to where Bianco was standing and he nodded again and waved. Had he seen the scars on my hands and arms, my own oven “kisses”, or had he just recognized that I had been totally digging the food and the experience since first walking in?
The drive back was even less eventful than the drive out and by 6:00 am, the sun just up, I was back home. One thousand miles, twenty hours and about two hundred and fifty dollars after my pilgrimage began I crawled into bed for a few hours sleep before I would return to work. Was it worth it? Will I return? Hells yeah.