WINNER: PIZZERIA BIANCO
623 E. Adams, Phoenix, pizzeriabianco.com
Magherita pizza $11, serves 1
No one thinks to call Phoenix the pizza capital of America, much less the world. In fact, it would be fair to say that before transplanted New Yorker Chris Bianco opened Pizzeria Bianco in 1994, Phoenix was not even considered the crust capital of Arizona. Now food lovers from around the globe make the pilgrimage and wait three hours for food so good even my Neapolitan friends grudgingly acknowledge that the best pizza in the world is being made in Phoenix.
Arrive a couple of hours before Bianco opens for business and you'll find a small stone-and-wood building plunked down in Phoenix's Heritage Square. In front of the building is a lawn where you will undoubtedly meet other pilgrims who have come to try the pies with the outsize reputations.
Your fellow linemates will ask each other: Are we crazy? How far did you travel? Could any plate of food be worth this kind of time commitment? Are we a bunch of suckers? Your questions won't be answered for hours.
Once your rear has finally found its way into a seat, you peruse the short menu. The same six pizzas have been on the menu for years now. This is not because Bianco is on autopilot. It's because he believes each pizza is perfect.
In addition to the plain Margherita and Marinara pies, there's the Wiseguy (smoked mozzarella, roasted onion and fennel sausage), the Sonny Boy (fresh mozzarella, salami and olives), the Biancoverde (fresh mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta and arugula) and Bianco's masterpiece, the Rosa, topped with an oddly delicious combination of parmesan, red onion, rosemary and Arizona pistachios. Yes, pistachios -- inspired by a sesame seed-and-parmesan pizza Bianco sampled in Liguria, Italy.
The fresh salads and vegetables add to the restaurant's appeal, as does its upbeat energy. The diners laugh and talk loudly (mostly about the food), and you feel honored to be here, watching Bianco do his thing. If you love pizza, it's like the rush music lovers get out of listening to John Coltrane play saxophone. Bianco, the pizza whisperer, is rapidly going about his business with an intensity usually displayed by air traffic controllers. After taking one bite, you will agree that you are sitting squarely in the best pizzeria in America, maybe the world. And you will cancel tomorrow's plans and do it all over again.
MEET THE PIZZAIOLO: CHRIS BIANCO
Where did you learn to make pizza?
I started working at a pizzeria in Westchester, New York, when I was 13. There was no indication that this was going to be my future, but I got to listen to Bobby Darin records and eat free slices. I learned that I like serving people.
How did you end up in Phoenix?
I was in New York, and I was cold and tired. There are a lot of things I love about New York, but it was a battle. The cold was bad for my asthma. I wanted to see what else was out there. I found I have a real connection to the desert. I still love to disappear into it.
What keeps you excited about pizza?
This will disappoint pizza aficionados, but here's the truth: It's not really about the pizza. It's about working with organic farmers with good intentions who are trying their best, and sharing that collective experience. But pizza has served me well, and I hope I've served it well.
Where do you see yourself going in the future?
It's important for me to pass on what I've learned to another generation of pizza makers. If I've raised the bar at all, it's only so that others can dance on it.
MORE LIKE THIS