It's 8 a.m. on a Thursday in the empty dining room of Sessanta, an Italian restaurant in the New York City hotel Sixty SoHo, and Chris Bianco, the Arizona chef widely regarded as the father of the modern artisanal pizza movement, is running on adrenaline and just a few hours of sleep.
"Oh my goodness, it was a cavalcade of who's who," Bianco says, with mock seriousness, of the dinner party he flew in from Phoenix to host in this very space the previous evening, to celebrate the July release of his long-awaited first book, Bianco: Pizza, Pasta, and Other Food I Like.
"There were a lot of friends," from the food world, he says. And possibly "just some people who were hungry and someone dragged them to the dinner and they probably thought there would be pizza."
Bite-sized focaccia squares were the closest thing to pizza on the four-course menu. Likewise, while Bianco's eponymous cookbook includes dough, sauce and pizza recipes, it expands beyond pizza to reflect his evolution as a chef and restaurateur.
Pizza, of course, is what put Bianco on the culinary map. Since starting Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix nearly 30 years ago, his thin-crust wood-fired pizza has consistently won accolades. In 2003, Bianco became the first pizza maker to receive a regional James Beard Award (Best Chef, Southwest). The New York Times lauded Bianco for "making what just might be the best pizza in America." Food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, in Ed Levine's Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, went further: "Chris [Bianco] makes the finest pizzas in the United States and, in all frankness, the world." Because of Bianco, the Valley of the Sun has become a mecca for the pizza obsessed.
"Back in the day, people used to go through my trash to find out what tomatoes we used — 'That must be the secret!' — or the flour — 'That's the secret!,'" Bianco says, taking a sip of black coffee. "I was like, dude, you want tomatoes? Here's a can."
"If you asked me, I told you anything," Bianco adds.
Over the years, Bianco has mentored and inspired pizza makers from across the country, including Paul Giannone, of Paulie Gee's, in Brooklyn; Brandon Pettit, of Delancey, in Seattle; and Nancy Silverton, of Pizzeria Mozza, in Los Angeles.
"He's like a pizza Yoda, Chris is," says Adam Kuban, founder of the pizza blog Slice, which is now part of the website Serious Eats. "I think when pizza makers go to him, it's not so much how to learn to make pizza, it's just to kind of absorb this knowledge. It's almost like going to a Buddhist temple or something and taking in the knowledge and then applying that knowledge to what you do."
Matthew Lyons, of Tribute Pizza, in San Diego, calls Bianco "a very amicable cult leader."
"It's just this cult of, like, caring an unreasonable amount about food and ingredients and people," he says.
Born in the Bronx, Bianco is 55 and stocky, neither tall nor short, with a warm smile and pewter-colored hair that stands up in waves in the style of a mad scientist. He moved to Arizona when he was in his 20s, and in 1988 leased space in a gourmet market in order to start a pizza-making operation. In 1996, Pizzeria Bianco settled into its flagship location, a Prohibition-era red brick building in downtown Phoenix.
Bianco's cookbook is an expression of this broadened palate. This may rankle hardcore pizza aficionados, but it suits Bianco. "I didn't want to do just a pizza book," he says.
"I'm of the belief that if know how to forage for a salad, if you go into the market and you kind of open your mind up, and you start to align yourself with seasonality, and ask 'What do I feel like eating? Who's it for? Is it a first course or a main course salad?'" says Bianco. "All the questions that go into that, all the thoroughness that goes into that, that's how I make pizza."
Bianco opens with recipes for the six pies served at the pizzeria, including the signature Pizza Rosa: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, red onion, fresh rosemary and a scattering of crushed Arizona-grown pistachios. There are instructions for hearty main dishes (meatballs; braciole), salads (panzanella; purslane and cucumber) and sweets (rice pudding; lemon cookies). Into the narratives that tie the book together, Bianco weaves threads of memory, tradition and family.
Perhaps it is Bianco's own growing family — he and his wife, Mia, have two young children and a baby due in September — that moved him after all these years to finally put his recipes and food philosophy between two covers.
"I know that someday on this Earth that I won't make anything," Bianco says. "I won't even make a piece of toast. I won't be here in the physical sense."
His writing, therefore, is guided by a simple question: "How can I make a template that will be really easy to follow, or as easy as possible, that will live, hopefully, a long time?"
Jaime Joyce is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times. She is the author of Moonshine: A Cultural History of America's Infamous Liquor. Follow her on Instagram at @jaijoyce.