WORDS AND IMAGES BY JOHN BULTENA
The Little Oven Pizza guys, Thad and Dan, are a well of knowledge about pizza. This knowledge they consistently leverage into making great pizza, but it is one that they are willing to talk about and share. Never one to shy away from learning about anything, I wanted to hear more. Late on a Saturday evening, I asked Thad to convey his story of becoming a pizza chef. While I certainly got an elaborate story (was about 30 minutes before he got to the part where he began making pizzas), I also got a history of pizza in the United States. One name kept coming up: Chris Bianco. When I inquired about Chris Bianco’s pizzeria Thad responded, “Out of this world.” My interest was piqued. Thad informed me that Chris Bianco, along with Rob DiNapoli, own Bianco Dinapoli, that produce the same tomatoes used by Little Oven Pizza and many great pizzerias.
Hit up a friend in Phoenix, booked a hotel, scouted some record shops online, made a tattoo appointment, got tickets to a concert; I was going to sandwich this trip to Pizzeria Bianco between a lots of awesome stuff. But I never lost sight of the goal: to eat great pizza.
My friend, Rosa (a fellow pizza enthusiast), and I arrived around 1:45 in the afternoon on a Saturday. Have to say, I was a little surprised to see valet parking for Bianco’s. But it was inexpensive and made sure the parking did not interfere nor deter. Leave the keys, move on. A 20-foot walk got us to the outside dining area where we were greeted by the hostess. A table for two was in order and is what we got. Entering the door, this place was packed with friends and families enjoying meals. Life was happening.
The approach to an excellent meal. Photo courtesy of Rosa Payan.
We were seated in the middle of the venue at a butcher block table, but I asked to be placed closer to the door: I wanted to be able to watch people as they came and went; not to mention it was an absolutely lovely day. Our drink order was taken. At this point, early on, I realized what was happening besides just the common friendly demeanor of customer service: there was genuine concern. Thad was right, this would be “Out of this world.”
Draft of Lumberyard’s “Diamond Down Lager.”
The pizzeria has beer and wine; I ordered a draft of Lumberyard “Diamond Down” lager, while Rosa had a can of Prescott Brewery’s “Liquid Amber” ale. Taking a sip of my beverage, I let loose a low but audible, “holy shit,” to Rosa. The crisp fleeting flavor of this lager was not expected. Not being much a beer drinker, I became a fan of this brew immediately. Quality was going to be the word of the day.
The Rosa, this legend and star attraction has red onion, parmigiano reggiano, rosemary, and Arizona pistachios.
To begin, we ordered the Rosa. Thad tells me this is considered by many to be the best pizza in the world. It features Parmigiana-Reggiano topped with rosemary, red onion, and Arizona pistachios. The pizza came quickly, in about eight minutes. With the first bite, I knew the 600-mile drive was worth it. The Parmesan was rich with an eloquent loop of flavor. The onion and pistachio interaction was where the real action is. Pistachios are a sweeter nut with a flavor that is delicious by itself, but the red onion seem to sustain their flavor. But the beauty was the dance engaged by these three ingredients upon the stage that is Bianco’s dough. Each bite was a different performance with differing cast involvement of pistachio, red onion, Parmigiano-Reggiano with occasional splashes of my lager. Rosa and I were in disbelief of how good the pizza was but had full faith this would not the only pie we would be eating that day.
On the left Margherita (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil); on the right Biancoverde (fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta, and arugula) with fennel sausage.
We inquired to the hostess (who I cannot stress enough was an absolute delight) about another pizza, but we were unsure which one to go with. She offered to a split pie with their other two fan favorites: Margherita and Biancoverde with fennel sausage from Schreiner’s Fine Sausage in Phoenix. Not being steered wrong, Rosa and I enthusiastically agreed. Margherita pizza is enjoyed for its lightness; just tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella. Each ingredient gets to shine and boy did it all shine. The aroma of the basil made sure each bite had a hint of its flavor, but never dominated until a leaf was ingested. However, the Biancoverde and the sausage upon it were the highlight of this pie; this side featured fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano ricotta, arugula, with an absolutely amazing fennel sausage. Disclaimer: I am a sucker for arugula on a pizza (remind me to remind Thad to get some in). Once again, all the ingredients were fresh and flavorful, but the sausage presented a different sort of taste. It was spicy, but not hot. Definitely the most complex of all the tastes I had that day at Pizzeria Bianco; thorough is how I would describe it.
Dessert: flourless chocolate cake with vanilla bean cream, espresso, Americano, and vanilla bean rice pudding with organic raisins.
I was not raised in a house where desert was engaged much, but when offered by the hospitality of the pizzeria staff I had to oblige. Rosa had the flourless chocolate cake topped with vanilla bean sauce along with an espresso. Myself, I went for their vanilla bean rice pudding with raisins and an Americano to drink. These were the second best choices we made all day after making the decision to go to Bianco’s. We each had a bite of the other’s chosen desert. The cake was rich, very rich but was enhanced by the vanilla bean sauce so as not to be overbearing. That all said, I do not think I could take on that entire slice. Still, deliciously chocolate. The rice pudding is the best I have ever had. Many of times in my youth I have consumed vanilla rice pudding, but never vanilla bean. What a night and day difference. It was not overly sweet, but provided a rolling flavor where the spiced flavor that vanilla bean is could give me a ride. Texture was on point with a good distribution of pudding and rice while the raisins added points of flavor to complement the entire dish. Our coffees were excellent with deep flavors and honestly, I cannot think of a better way to end the meal.
My face during that first bite of a Rosa.
At an early point in the meal, I posted to social media about being at Pizzeria Bianco. Thad saw this and began asking me question after question, telling me how I was about to eat, what many consider, the best pizza in the world; along with wanting my opinion on how Little Oven Pizza compares. And they do. Both places use quality ingredients, provide excellent environments for dining, make very tasty pizzas; but they each do so in different ways. That is the take away to understand about pizza: it is varied, there is no standard operating procedure for it. Directly comparing Bianco’s Rosa to Little Oven’s Phoenix; I can tell you the Rosa is more savory while the Phoenix is sweeter. Which do I prefer? Depends what I am in the mood for, but I am always in the mood for quality and a good dining experience. But in the eight months that Little Oven Pizza has been opened, they have shown they are up to the challenge. That all said, think I will take Rob DiNapoli’s advice, “Save the gas…eat in Merced!” At least until I get back to Phoenix…then you will find me at Bianco’s.