Q&A: Talking to Chris Bianco about pizza, why he finally decided to write a cookbook, and coming to L.A.

Chris Bianco with a box of his bread outside of Pane Bianco in Phoenix.
(David Loftus)

On a recent morning, pizza maker Chris Bianco sat down at a booth at the Roosevelt Hotel’s 24-hour burger lounge 25 Degrees, to talk about his new cookbook over breakfast. Bianco’s book, “Bianco: Pizza, Pasta and Other Food I Like,” which came out last month from Ecco, is the 55-year-old chef’s first book, despite a long and illustrious career that includes four Phoenix restaurants, a 2003 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest (the first pizzaiola to receive one) and a pretty consistent designation as the best pizza maker in America.

If you’re a pizza fan of a certain sort, it is likely that you’ve pilgrimaged to Pizzeria Bianco, the Phoenix pizzeria that the chef opened back in 1987 and for which first-come, first-serve diners routinely queue for hours. It’s just as likely that you’ve been anticipating a pilgrimage to ROW DTLA, the downtown Los Angeles mixed-use site where Bianco and Chad Robertson, the baker extraordinaire behind Tartine and Tartine Manufactury, will open a joint project later this year.

Bianco is an affable, talkative guy, with his native New York still embedded in his voice and a head of graying hair that looks like it never recovered from some cross-country open-air road trip. Bianco’s cookbook is, unsurprisingly, as friendly and accessible as the chef himself — chatty and personal, just over 200 pages divided into seven chapters, only the first of which is devoted to pizza. There are asides about his two young kids; there are recipes for chicken cacciatore and meatballs.

Over an omelet that he never eats, likely because to do so would require him to stop talking, Bianco considers his new book, his new L.A. project — his first restaurant outside of Phoenix — and where he is on his his long and pretty remarkable journey. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

This is your first book. How’d that happen?

This is my only book; this is it. It took four years to write this. [Ecco editor] Dan Halperin had asked me about 12 years ago. I was in Phoenix and [cookbook writer and chef] Deborah Madison and Dan came out to visit me and said, ‘You’ve got to do this book.’ And I’m like, no, we don’t need any more pizza books. It was a time when people were writing books when their aprons weren’t even dirty yet. And I was like, maybe some day I’ll have something to say, but then I was too much in the throes of it. I was busy, and it was too presumptuous anyway.

This was a dozen years ago?

Yeah. And then four years ago, Dan called me again. I’m kind of a loyalist. He was the first one to think anyone would give a ... what I would have to say. Because at first I wanted to make such an art book, like maybe it would weigh 40 pounds, you open it in a crate, it’d come with dirt and seeds.

Yet this book is very user-friendly. It’s not a Nathan Myhrvold book.

Which I love. And I love Chad’s [Robertson] books, and Jim Leahy’s and Paul Bertolli’s books. My mother had every Encyclopedia Brittanica and every Gourmet magazine; that was it, every month. I didn’t keep my Matchbox car collection, but I kept those. Ruth Reichl invited me to New York and we did a little pizza thing, and I remember walking into that lobby and they had every Gourmet cover on that wall and I remember staring at that wall thinking, I remember you, I remember you. When you can humanize paper, it becomes really powerful.

At first I wanted to make such an art book, like maybe it would weigh 40 pounds, you open it in a crate, it'd come with dirt and seeds.

— Chris Bianco

Some cookbooks don’t really do that.

Whether it’s a film, a book, a human being, anything, there are two columns: “great” and “sucks.” And a third one is “not what I expected.” And the not-what-I-expected one becomes the most powerful. I think when you feed people, that’s always one of the greatest opportunities.

There’s a recipe in there for verdolaga, purslane salad. In the ’90s, I was working in Santa Fe at Babbo Ganzo, and thinking of what kind of salad to make and Rocky [one of the kitchen crew] started telling me about all the verdolaga out by the dumpster. I remembered when I was a kid and my grandfather would take me to pick dandelions near the Taconic State Parkway, and I’d be embarrassed to have anybody see me. So metaphorically you think: Whether it’s a person or an ingredient or an opportunity, what are we walking over? What are we ignoring in our efforts to FedEx something in?

Yes. Sometimes you go down to Echo Park and there’s fennel everywhere.

Exactly.That’s more of the spirit of being present. I’m having so much fun now, with Chad [Robertson] on our downtown project, Row DTLA. And I think we will have one Pizzeria Bianco here; that’s my goal. I want to take everything that I’ve done, and not replicate it, but see what I’d have done differently. You stop when you're done.

I’m definitely not for everybody, and my pizza is definitely not for everybody; I understand that. But I’m super proud of the people who provide things for me. I feel an obligation never to disrespect that. The book is: What do I like, what house do I want to build?

Cookbooks are often memoirs. You have a lovely line in your book where you say, “I didn’t invent this, I inherited it.”

I invented nothing in my life. It’s so much like music sometimes. You’ll be excited about this band, and you’re three notes in and you think, this sounds so much like the early Kinks. Ray Davies is gonna be pissed. The same with food. You’ll be like, this food is awesome, but it’s nothing like the sandwich I had in Barcelona.

This is a relationship book, about food and about finding a sense of purpose and sharing it with others. I did the book to have a conversation with people. Making pizzas in a fiery hole has allowed me to have conversations beyond my wildest imagination.

How do you translate that to coming to Los Angeles?

I think there’s a sensibility to this town; I think there’s something for me. I saw the opportunity to do something, with Chad, with the farmers, with our West Coast community, the grain alliances, the cheesemakers, some of the greatest produce in the world. My mother’s father was from Corona, and if I was a sculptor I might be back there, you know, chipping at marble. I think you go to the source.

My wife has family in Burbank, there are so many connections to L.A. — plus it’s 55 minutes on the plane — and I’ve kept a place here for the last six months. I’ve been coming here for a long time, and really building a bridge. I do want to be invited to the party, I want to talk about ... that matters, I want to do … that matters. I don’t want it to be a French tragedy where the last page is me hitting a tree and the page goes blank. There are possibilities. No matter where I am — stuck in the elevator or any place — I find great things at work.

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