A Visit to Pizzeria Bianco

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Pop-Up Brunch with Chef Tanisha!

Words and images by JOHN BULTENA

Dough is crucial. It forms the foundation that can make or break a pizza. Little Oven Pizza makes our own dough that, in conjunction with local ingredients, helps provide Merced with high quality pizza. That all said, pizza is not the only thing our dough can do, as a dear friend discovered.

Case full of baked goods.

Case full of baked goods.

Tanisha McClain is a well known Downtown Merced figure and amazing chef. She first met Thad and Dan of Little Oven Pizza when a pizza shop was only an idea. “They were awesome dudes. When they were sourcing ingredients, they were meticulous about finding local sources and making things fresh in house.” Inspired by Little Oven Pizza’s attention to quality, she approached them about a pop-up restaurant event. While Tanisha has done pop-up events in Downtown Merced prior, this one would be special because of dough.

Provided with some of Thad’s pizza dough, Tanisha got experimenting. The results were revealing, “Their dough is the perfect texture of chewy with that nice bite. It was surprisingly versatile when making it into other items that were not pizza.” But just serving it up in non-pizza dishes would not be enough. Noticing a gap of brunch oriented options in Merced, Tanisha had a distinct direction.  Focusing on Little Oven’s dough, Tanisha came up with a variety of dishes utilizing it along with companion pieces that would form an excellent and tasty Sunday brunch for Merced while fostering a developing Downtown Food Culture.

Chef Tanisha’s Pop-Up Brunch menu

The menu featured a combination of sweet and savory baked goods. Not on the menu was the excellent tea and coffee service. Aided by Alissa Haynes, Tanisha provided consistent refills of a variety of choices: Earl Grey, Chamomile, and Green Teas. Coffee was provided as drip Kona or a French pressed organic Indonesian courtesy of Coffee Bandits, just down the street! All great ways to start and finish a meal.

Veggie scramble, kale breakfast braid, and Khachapuri; with a fine cup of Kona.

Veggie scramble, kale breakfast braid, and khachapuri; with a fine cup of Kona.

The khachapuri and breakfast braid were the pieces that showcased Little Oven Pizza’s unique dough and Tanisha’s culinary skills in tandem. Both utilized eggs from Green Acres Farmstead of Hilmar here in California. Khachapuri is a Georgian styled pie that is akin to pizza in its native land, as it the dough is formed to have a bowl area that can contain a myriad of toppings. The breakfast braid is a flaky dough, that is filled with eggs, and either sausage/bacon or kale and onions from Raw Roots Farm of Catheys Valley. In addition, a sweet version with strawberries and cream cheese proved popular. To round it out, egg scrambles in veggie and meat-lovers manifestations were present. On the sweet side of things, Krantz cake, similar to a babka, had numerous fans at the pop-up brunch. Alongside that, two variations of cinnamon roll were available: a traditional one and another featuring bourbon bacon.

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Dishes shared by friends. Right: meat scramble, strawberries & cream breakfast braid, and bourbon bacon cinnamon roll. Left: veggie scramble, kale breakfast braid, and Krantz cake.

A lot of buzz was abound from the guests enjoying the food. Word traveled fast for this event via Facebook. Eric raved about the bourbon bacon cinnamon rolls while stating he hopes to see more events like this one. Alex said the dough is what made this particular brunch “especially intriguing.” A long time fan of Tanisha’s, Colton, who has meals prepared by her weekly, said the “social element” of this event was what made it really stand out. His tablemate, Louisa, found the diversity of dishes to be most appealing, especially the Georgian Khachapuri. In fact, it became difficult to get photos of the food because everyone was so eager to dig in to such a delightful meal.

Guests lined up to order a delicious and unique brunch from Tanisha and Alissa

Coming together and fostering a downtown food culture with such positive people, while seeing ample support from the local community warms our hearts. We are thankful to Tanisha for utilizing our space in an extra-pizza way!  Synergistic maneuvers like this will help spread the notion of quality food that local purveyors, such as Green Acres Farmstead, Raw Roots Farm, and Coffee Bandits, have available. But more importantly, it serves to remind our community of how much the Central Valley has to offer us up as bounty of the land.

Chef Tanisha enjoying strawberries from Raw Roots Farms after a hard mornings work.

Chef Tanisha enjoying strawberries from Raw Roots Farms after a hard mornings work.

Welcome to Little Oven Pizza

Welcome to Little Oven Pizza’s web log! Here we hope to share more about Little Oven Pizza and our culinary philosophies. Both of us (Thad and Dan) are excited to show you the things that inspire us, whether it is the food that we grew up with or dishes from areas of the world we have never visited.

This will be a space where you can read about Little Oven Pizza’s continuing story. We will discuss our influences, feature local farms and suppliers of Little Oven Pizza, talk about life in downtown Merced and even share some recipes; all the stuff that helps us bring you great pizza.

Thad and Dan 2009

Dan and Thad making pizza in 2009

We hope that this will become a fun way for us to stay in touch with other foodies in the Central Valley or those just interested in learning more about how two guys from Philadelphia decided to open a pizza shop in Merced, California. Stay tuned for frequent updates.