Thursday February 4, 2010
From Howard Seftel of AZCentral: Fans of Pizzeria Bianco in downtown Phoenix have been able to count on two things: a wait of up to three hours and the sight of James Beard Award-winner Chris Bianco himself sliding the pizzas in and out of the wood-fired oven.
The wait hasn't changed.
But for the past month, illness has kept Bianco, 47, away from the oven and often entirely out of the restaurant.
On Wednesday, Bianco got the food world buzzing after he told the The Republic that he is, for the moment, stepping away from his pizza post on doctor's orders.
The smoke from the fire and exposure to wheat in the dough aggravate his asthma, Bianco said.
He has had the condition since childhood, and it had been under control. But recently, after a "couple of scary bouts," it has gotten more serious, Bianco said. The stress of the situation isn't helping his health, either.
"My doctor says I have to keep my head out of the oven if I want to see 50," Bianco said.
Bianco has built a national reputation for his wood-fired pizzas, each of which he has insisted on cooking himself since the restaurant opened 14 years ago. He also has been hands-on at Pane Bianco in central Phoenix, which features sandwiches made from wood-fired bread.
Despite the health challenges, Bianco said, "this is not a swan song."
He'll continue to oversee operations during the afternoons, before opening time, and make appearances greeting customers, as his health permits.
"All I know how to do is work," he said. "It's like Steve Nash hurting his knee and having to sit out for a while. I may come back."
In 2005, Pizzeria Bianco was named the best pizza in America in the book "Slice of Heaven," causing consternation among pizza-loving traditionalists in New York City and deep-dish fans in Chicago. It has been lauded by the Food Network, the New York Times and Gourmet, Martha Stewart Living and Vogue magazines.
News that he would no longer be a hands-on pizza maker sent ripples through the local and national foodie community.
"That is sad that people might not be able to see that for a while," said Ed Levine, author of "Slice of Heaven" and founder of SeriousEats.com.
"For me, one of the most profound experiences I had eating anything was to see him, in the moment, living and dying with every pie."
Levine, a longtime friend, said he and Bianco talked about the situation a few days ago. He said Bianco's hands-on absence will not affect quality.
"He always talks about the connection he feels between him and his pizza, and him and his customers, and that won't change," Levine said.
For 12 years, Bianco has farmed out the pizza-dough making to his brother Marco. And as for now, oven duties are in the hands of Horacio Hernandez, who has assisted him for 15 years.
"It's still his pizza, and it's always going to be his pizza as long as he's around Phoenix, and his brother is making the dough, and all his guys are still there," Levine said.
Like Bianco, Valley James Beard Award-winning chefs Christopher Gross and Vincent Guerithault have stamped their restaurants with their own names.
They're both hopeful that Bianco can maintain his standards. Noting the restaurant's limited menu - pizzas, salads and desserts - Gross said, "If they stick to what they have, I'd say it would be just as consistent."
Guerithault said a trained staff can produce the same quality pizza under Bianco's supervision. What he wonders about, however, is how the notorious workaholic Bianco will have the discipline to stay away.
Bronx-born Bianco got his Phoenix pizza start in 1988, when he operated a stand inside of Euromarket, one of the Valley's first gourmet supermarkets.
In 1994, after much acclaim for his fabulous bread at Rancho Pinot Grill, he opened a small artisanal pizza parlor in the Town & Country shopping center at 20th Street and Camelback Road.
Two years later, he moved to his current location, in Heritage Square in downtown Phoenix.
Midweek or weekend, it makes no difference: Curious newcomers and repeat customers alike make the pilgrimage, lining up outside the century-old brick building before the 5 p.m. opening and crowding into the pizzeria's wine bar next door.
"I'm just happy that Chris is dealing with this in a healthy way," Levine said. "Hopefully, it means we're going to have Chris to learn from for a long time to come."- AZCentral
Here's a clip of Bianco making pizza on the Jimmy Kimmel show: