A Slice of Arizona

Pizzeria Bianco in Tucson carries on the same traditions as the original

Heather Hoch

Pizzeria Bianco might seem overblown with accolades flowing in nationally for the Phoenix-based pizza place. For a town that has its own burgeoning craft pizza scene, especially with Reilly nearby, it might seem like the Valley is invading the Old Pueblo. However, there's no denying that aspects of the 20-year-old pizza empire founded by Chef Chris Bianco are worth that hype.

Let me start out by saying that in my college years I worked for Bianco at his Phoenix sandwich shop, Pane Bianco. Seeing the ins and outs of the kitchen was definitely a learning lesson for me that constantly reinforced a love of food, its sourcing, and the effort it took to make everything from scratch—be it the mozzarella, dough, and cured meats. I also have to mention that after working in other restaurants, the Bianco crew keeps one of the most well-organized and spotless walk-in fridges that I've ever seen.

All of that aside, I was curious to see if the Tucson location would be committed to being locally Tucson or simply source the same Phoenix ingredients to the new location. While some ingredients, like the Hayden Flour Mills Flour, are still the same, others, like the EXO Roast coffee, showcase the pizzeria's newest stomping grounds.

You'll automatically notice that the service at Pizzeria Bianco is relaxed, playful, and knowledgeable. A large antique bread paddle hangs above the open kitchen as decoration and our server explained that this board is Bianco's "marlin"—a prideful display of the time he was searching to move the pizzeria from its original location to the one it became famous for.

Like Bianco's three other restaurants in Arizona, the space is decorated with antique and vintage signs and other trinkets that the restaurateur finds—kind of like a more well-curated take on kitschy sports bar décor. With rustic touches, the spot feels homey and comfortable, which might not be what you'd expect if until this point you've only heard of the craft pizza place.

First and foremost, the pizza is up to those Bianco standards that everyone from Oprah to Bianco's buddy Jimmy Kimmel has lauded. The white pizzas, such as the arugula-topped Biancoverde with mozzarella, ricotta, and Parmigiano Reggiano and the Rosa with pistachio, Parmigiano Reggiano, onion, and rosemary, offer a different take to the standard pizza and a lot of flavor too.

However, it's the classic margherita that really showcases why Pizzeria Bianco has become synonymous with artisanal Neapolitan pizza in the state. The Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, which are grown specifically for Bianco's restaurants in California and canned fresh annually with just a bit of sea salt and basil, really make this pie stand out. The bright acidic flavor combined with the smooth texture of the pizza sauce showcase the tomatoes, rather than hiding them under layers of spices. It's simple, sure, but if you're using quality tomatoes, the sauce doesn't need to be much more than that. Perfectly crisp, thin, and lightly charred crust, in-house made fresh mozzarella, and basil round out the pie to be a standard by which to measure a margherita pizza.

If you can't eat your pizza without meat, the Wiseguy with smoked mozzarella, fennel sausage, and roasted onion or the Sonny Boy with tomato, mozzarella, salami, and olives will satisfy for both white and red pizza lovers. Just be warned that when compared to somewhere like the neighboring Reilly who charges $12 to $15, Bianco's pizzas range from $13 to $18.

While the pizza is definitely the star of the show, as is evidenced by the fact that pretty much every table offers a view of the massive pecan wood-burning pizza oven, the restaurant also carries a list of seasonal and constantly changing small plates. Within a week, the specials had changed up offering a new selection for regulars.

The house-made pickle plate, with pickles, pickled Brussels sprouts, and mortadella, showcase the crew's ability to make a range of classic delicatessen fare from scratch. The mortadella, which is an Italian-style spiced bologna studded with pistachio and cubed pork fat, was particularly well made. Unfortunately, the thinly-sliced fennel salad, with overly large pieces of grapefruit and a few leaves of parsley, had imbalanced flavor, leaving us wishing for a hit of either salt or honey and some much smaller pieces of grapefruit.

Surprisingly, though, the unexpected standout of Tucson's Pizzeria Bianco is dessert. For a person who doesn't ever order dessert and has, on one occasion, ordered another pizza in lieu of dessert, I was delighted by the intensely rich and dense dark chocolate flourless cake (made from Bianco's mother's recipe), creamy spiced nutmeg Italian ice, and the light and tart lemon Italian ice.

Overall, the legacy of Pizzeria Bianco will likely drive customers into the downtown spot no matter what. Admittedly, the price point is a little higher than you might be used to shelling out for a pie, but if you stick to ordering a margherita pizza and slice of chocolate cake, you won't be disappointed.