Chris Bianco could have opened his second pizzeria anywhere in the world.
He picked downtown Tucson.
"Tucson has been one of my favorite places, for a lot of different reasons," Bianco said. "I have good friends in Patagonia and in Sonoita and the wineries there. Tucson has always been a good stop on the way for music and inspiration and architecture and the barrio."
Bianco hopes to be up and running near Congress Street and Fifth Avenue (between comfort-food HUB and the nightclub Playground) sometime in November.
Bianco has been running Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix for nearly two decades and was a step ahead of downtown revitalization there, opening in Heritage Square in 1996. His menu is small—just a half-dozen pizzas, a trio of salads and handful of small plates and side dishes—but the praise has been large. Bianco was the first pizza chef to have won a James Beard award. GQ has credited Bianco with launching the artisan pizza movement. Bon Appetit declared the pie to be the best in the nation. (It's also considered among the best in the world by Tucson Weekly editor Dan Gibson, who explains his perspective elsewhere on this page.)
Bianco has been praised for his care in combining fresh, quality ingredients from his own garden and local suppliers for everything from the dough to the toppings.
"You learn to take your own sense of what makes something good," Bianco says. "It's about celebrating your backyard. ... When we get to Tucson, I think there will be an even bigger opportunity to do it."
While he's not yet ready to reveal all the relationships he's building with local suppliers here, Bianco says "my back door has always been open to farmers and people to bring what they've got to show up. You show up with some local peaches and I guarantee you, I'll find a way to put them in a salad."
Bianco, who oversaw all the pizzas that went into his oven until a few years ago (when complications from a chronic asthma condition forced him to step away from the dusty dough), has been offered opportunities to open a second pizzeria from big shots around the globe.
But it was seeing the developing restaurant scene in downtown Tucson that convinced him to expand here.
"I walked into the space and I saw the red brick and the good neighbors," Bianco said. "I want to over-deliver."
The new Pizzeria Bianco is a huge win for downtown Tucson, which has been steadily developing a reputation as a restaurant destination in recent years as new eateries such as HUB, 47 Scott, Maynards Market and Kitchen, Sparkroot and Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink have opened downtown. Janos Wilder, who was doing Sonoran locavore dishes long before locavore was cool, returned to downtown from the Catalina Foothills to open DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails in 2010. Two famed Flagstaff eateries, Brix and Diablo Burger, both are planning on opening new spots in the Rialto building next month.
Scott Stiteler, who will be Bianco's landlord, says that he sought a focus on unique eateries in the downtown properties that he owns.
"My objective was to create an intersection that people all over Tucson and hopefully from places farther away feel the need to go and check out," says Stiteler, who is also the landlord for Playground, HUB, Sparkroot and other eateries along Congress Street. "If you're going to have a place to explore, you need a dozen or more interesting, unique businesses in your buildings."
Stiteler's vision for creating a dining destination in downtown played a big role in Bianco's decision to open on Congress Street.
"To do something that is bringing together people with good intentions—that's my kind of party," says Bianco. "I think when things feel like home, you find a way to stay in the neighborhood and work in the community."
WHY PIZZERIA BIANCO MATTERS
The idea that there's one singular best pizza in America (or the world) is a ridiculous notion. Sure, that sort of thing is fuel for lists in publications like ours, but really, there's so much preference involved that what we really mean when something gets the "best" label is that the process is right. Care is taken with the ingredients, the idea behind what's on the plate makes sense, but most of all, that when the food is in front of you, that there's a reaction beyond the basic satisfaction of having something to eat. The thing with Chris Bianco, what critics and pizza experts notice about how he works, is that he creates pizzas that are a reflection of his personality, a manifesto on how food should really be made coming out of an oven one after another every night. And when you have one of his pizzas in Phoenix (and soonish in Tucson), it all makes sense, whether it's the Wiseguy (wood-roasted onion, house smoked mozzarella and fennel sausage) or the cheeseless Marinara (tomato sauce, oregano and garlic). This is the sort of food you wish you ate all the time.
A few years ago, Chris Bianco was a guest on Martha Stewart's daytime talk show and in the middle of their pizza-making banter (as best as I remember it), Stewart mentioned that Bianco had lost his olive oil on the way to New York for the taping, as the TSA confiscated it. Bianco seemed a little sad to even talk about it, pointing out that the oil was his own blend from the Queen Creek Olive Mill, on the eastern hinterlands of the general Phoenix area. Stewart, because she's the sort of person used to having the best of everything, I imagine, replied that her olive oil was still quite good. Bianco just shrugged his shoulders and said that it might be, but it wasn't his.
I couldn't be more excited to have Chris Bianco in town. Sure, there's other pizza around and it's quite good, but it's not his.
—Dan Gibson, firstname.lastname@example.org