Ladies and gentlemen, Pizzeria Bianco is open for business.
But, you knew that.
Heck, all of Tucson knows that, which is why — on a Wednesday — we waited an hour and a half for that world-famous pie.
That’s just the way it is.
It was true of my first Pizzeria Bianco experience eight years ago. Even on a steamy Tuesday night in July, the famed eatery had a two-hour wait. We learned from that, though, and two years ago on a repeat visit, we arrived right after it opened. Didn’t take as long.
Regardless, Pizzeria Bianco is worth the wait.
If I close my eyes, I can go back to that drizzly monsoon night in Phoenix when I first experienced Pizzeria Bianco. We devoured a caprese salad of thick, creamy house-made mozzarella — owner Chris Bianco started his culinary career making fresh mozz that he sold to restaurants — paired with sharp, fresh basil leaves and a lovely, full-bodied olive oil with a subtle peppery finish so good that it prompted me to ask where it was from. Then came the main event, the Wiseguy, a sauce-free pie with an amazing crust, thin and soft in the middle graduating to chewy-yet-crisp edges flecked with charmingly charred brown spots and studded with air bubbles.
I could smell the tinge of smoke from the wood-fired oven. One bite revealed the absolute perfect harmony of ingredients: tawny onion ribbons sweet and caramelized from wood-roasting; creamy, house-smoked mozzarella and slices of crisp-edged, fennel-heavy sausage.
Heaven — in a slice.
History repeated last week, thankfully without the mind-numbing drive to Phoenix, at Tucson’s very own, just-opened Pizzeria Bianco. The Wiseguy ($18) was every bit as good and exactly as I remembered.
Now, people will say — and have said — that’s ridiculous to wait so long. For anything. Well, here’s why you should.
Reason No. 1
This isn’t just artisan pizza. This is THE artisan pizza. Bianco’s pies have been crowned the best by Bon Appetit, the New York Times, Vogue and TV chef personalities Rachael Ray and Andrew Zimmern. In 2003, author Peter Reinhart’s book “American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza,” hailed Pizzeria Bianco as the best pizza in the U.S. That same year, Bianco scored a James Beard Award for best regional chef, the only pizzaiolo to earn the honor. His fans include Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and former President Bill Clinton.
Pizza, in Italy, isn’t about glopping on sauce or over-cheesing a pie into greasy oblivion. And in true Neapolitan style, Bianco’s pizzas are a harmonious blend of ingredients, no one thing outshines the other. Everything’s in balance. The Margherita ($15) wears a thin blanket of tomato sauce that’s delicate, tangy and bright. Slices of fresh mozzarella and fresh basil leaves artfully dot the pizza.
The Sonny Boy ($18) features that same tomato sauce and fresh mozz with salty, briny black pearls of Gaeta olives to balance the rich salami sliced thin and crisped from the wood-fired oven.
Reason No. 2
What you see is what you get.
Pizza is simple. “It’s a pointy end on a plate,” Bianco says. “You know where to start and there’s a bumper end so you know where to stop.”
He isn’t into overly frilly, hifalutin’ chow. “Sometimes, you read restaurant descriptions and you’re exhausted by the time you’re done reading,” he says.
So, you’ve got your small plates, your salads, your pizza, some extras and a “dish,” a changing entree that offers an option for people looking for something different or perhaps gluten-free (Bianco says he’s not “super big” on doing a gluten-free pizza).
At 50 seats, the Tucson outpost is only a smidge bigger than the downtown Phoenix Pizzeria Bianco. Instead, Bianco splurged on the kitchen, making it three times what he has in Heritage Square. That means he can indulge his love of rustic, comfort-food dishes like sausage and peppers — the dish on opening day — or old-school coq au vin braised in a bath of white wine and lemon and scented with oregano and honey.
Reason No. 3
There’s plenty of stuff to do until a table’s ready.
Forget waiting inside. It’s tight quarters by the preacher’s pulpit-turned-hostess stand. If you can snag one of the 10 seats at the bar, you can study the homey, vintage surroundings that include wooden chairs and lockers salvaged from a Long Beach, California, school district; richly colored still-life paintings by Bianco’s father, or watch the man himself tossing dough into the air.
Or, do what we did — poke around downtown. Check out the whimsical, design-oriented buys at ForsShop; dunk teeny bread squares into different olive oil-balsamic vinegar blends at Tucson Olive Oil (free appetizers!) and hop onto Sun Link while it’s still got that new streetcar smell.
Reason No. 4
Once you’re seated, food arrives fast. The wood-fired oven — visible throughout the restaurant — burns wicked hot, about 750-850 degrees and typically is fueled by pecan or apple wood. It can cook a pie in just 2-3 minutes.
Plus, the servers will immediately bring out bread and a little, complimentary bowl of green and black olives, glistening with an olive-oil marinade that includes lemon, oregano and chiltepin. If you love the little orbs, you’ll find these irresistible.
Reason No. 5
Chris Bianco has every reason to cop a serious attitude. C’mon, he has Oprah’s seal of approval. Doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Instead, he’s beyond humble about his fame and the warm reception he’s received in Tucson. He repeatedly uses the word grateful and says that when he hired his local staff, he didn’t care about extensive resumes — he wanted people who were nice.
He knows that a positive restaurant experience is about more than just the food.
“We’re grateful how people are responding and want to deliver on the expectation,” Bianco says. “I feel pressure every day to not let people down. I do care what people think. ... There’s a lot of places that are busy that are not good. We want to do something special.”
True to his philosophy, on our visit, the hostess, Bianco, servers and bussers who didn’t even wait on us thanked us for coming and for our patience. They did it on our way in and again on the way out.
So yeah, the food is good. Really good. And call me a sappy, Hallmark-card lovin’ fool, but I ended up feeling like Pizzeria Bianco not only warms the stomach but the heart, too.
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