By OLIVIA STREN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 7, 2018
I'm sitting on the slender patio at chef Chris Bianco's Pizzeria Bianco, midday sun spilling like limonata through the branches of a giant ficus tree. Inside, the restaurant's bar is painted the lickable shade of pistachio gelato and trimmed with Vespa-red-topped stools, and for a moment, I feel - evidently high on sunshine and mozzarella - that I might be on the Amalfi Coast.
Instead, I'm at the Town & Country strip mall in Phoenix.
And I'm awaiting what will turn out to be the finest, most lifeaffirmingly delicious pizza I've ever had. "I'm moved by very simplistic things," says Bianco - arguably the finest pizzaiolo in North America and the only one to have (justifiably!) won a James Beard Award. His six pilgrimageworthy pies are crafted from hard red spring wheat (grown in Arizona and Utah) and dressed with Bianco's own varietal of organic tomato (grown in Northern California's Yolo County), handmade mozzarella and New Mexican oregano, all emerging, puffycrusted and crisp of edge, from a cloud-huffing wood-fire oven.
"The best of anything is the thing you like best," Bianco says.
If I like Bianco's pizza best, I'm not alone. Food grandees such as Ruth Reichl and Jeffrey Steingarten declared his pizza "best" and Mario Batali appraised it "perfect." Bianco, who is originally from the Bronx (he still has the accent to prove it), talks with the passion and velocity of a hero in a New York cop show, each word in a sort of car chase with the next.
He arrived in Phoenix in January, 1985 with plans to spend a week in the warmth; he never left. "It was winter and I saw greens and sunshine and farmstands, and for someone who loves food and loves to cook, I just thought, 'Wow, what a paradise!' " He had learned to make mozzarella working at Mike's Deli in the Bronx and began making it, and selling it, from his apartment in Phoenix. "It was a little bit illegal," he says of those early cheesehawking days, "but I just thought, 'How much time could I really do if I was caught by the police for selling contraband mozzarella?' " Bianco, who now helms four restaurants in Phoenix and has teamed up with (dream-team alert) Tartine's Chad Robertson to open a new restaurant in Los Angeles this summer, has been (rightly) celebrated for putting the Arizona city on the foodie map.
Phoenix - a place that abounds in as many saguaro cactuses as strip malls - is an unlikely food capital. It's the sort of place where you might, say, have the most memorably delicious pizza experience of your life next to an SUVstuffed parking lot. But Phoenix, and nearby Scottsdale, are now ever-blooming with new, and great, restaurants. Here, menus mingle southwestern U.S., nativeAmerican, Sonoran Desert and Mexican influences, celebrating the desert's (counterintuitive) riches, with all its edible cactus and high-mountain flowers. And, if Pizzeria Bianco is any indication, even the best restaurants seem to occupy deeply unsexy locations: malls, office buildings.
(A new hipster food court has just colonized what was once a car showroom.)
The surrounding Valley of the Sun, mapped with five rivers and basking under unrelentingly periwinkle skies, has forever been an agricultural hotbed. Its new status as food destination comes by the grace of its (almost) objectionably perfect climate. "This is an agricultural city with an amazing growing season and organic farmers who are bringing tremendous products every month of the year," Bianco says of the city's changing food identity. The weather, in its perfection, is a big topic here. Locals frequently mention that they long for clouds, for a touch of inclement weather, if only for the sake of variety. In this banality of interminable sunshine, Phoenicians seem to behold visiting rain clouds with the same kind of ceremony and curiosity ("How long do you think they'll stay?" "We haven't seen one in months!") as they would a visiting celebrity.
On a classically cloudless Saturday, I visit the Phoenix farmers' market, where forests of kale and gold-stemmed chard sit next to acres of glossy peppers and pageants of multicoloured radishes and big-tummied lemons. It's as if the produce, happy and selfactualized, settled here to bloom into the best, fullest-flavoured versions of themselves. (I'm beginning to consider a move myself.) "If you pick a lemon from a tree in Arizona in the spring, when the trees are hanging heavy with fruit, you see the difference in that lemon - how much juice it gives, that arc of flavour, its sweetness and sourness," Bianco tells me, making me want to leg it immediately to the nearest lemon orchard.
Instead, I head to Scottsdale's (superb) FnB restaurant and I order the desert citrus salad - slices of oranges and grapefruit adorned with bee pollen, yuzu, tarragon, pistachios. The salad is so beautiful, so delicious and brightly perfumed, I feel I may as well have been served a plate of sliced sunbeams. FnB chef Charleen Badman (known as the veggie whisperer) celebrates the area's pre-Columbian and Indigenous influences, showcasing the state's (abundant) native produce in wildly imaginative pairings. A plate of King Richard leeks is braised in lemon and thyme and crowned with a fried egg, house-made mozzarella and mustardy breadcrumbs. (This dish was named one of the top-10 dishes in the country by Food & Wine magazine, and even has its own Twitter hashtag: #leekapalooza.) I've never felt a particular passion for leeks but they may now forever stalk my food fantasies. (Chef Badman, whose Instagram moniker is Veggie Badman, by the way, expresses her ardour more plainly, and permanently: She has leeks tattooed on her forearms.) Another star on the local food scene is chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, who helms Phoenix's unmissable Barrio Café and the Barrio Gran Reserva. I head to the latter, which serves the kind of refined and toothsome Mexican food you might find in Mexico City. Esparza comes from an 800year line of bakers in Spain. "My parents even met and married in a bakery in Chihuahua, Mexico!"
she says. "My blood is full of flour and chilis. And I have buenos manos," Esparza says, powerless in the face of her vocation. Over an aguachile with mango and jicama, Mexican wine hailing from the Valle de Guadalupe and a golden Oaxaca mole made with amarillo chilis and chayote squash, Esparza muses: "I've made a mole with 36 ingredients.
Mole is like playing a song. Once you know the foundation, you can make it blues, you can make it ragtime, depending on how you're feeling."
How I'm feeling after a few days feasting my way through the Valley of the Sun - apart from full - is a new profound affection for amarillo chilis, for King Richard leeks, for Chris Bianco's pizza and for desert citrus. I'm one slice and one Arizona grapefruit away from getting them tattooed on my forearms.
Phoenix has become a foodie hot spot, with restaurants such as Pizzeria Bianco, top, whose chef, Chris Bianco, won a James Beard Award. The city's farmers' market, called the Open Air Market, above left, offers wonderful cooked food along with locally sourced ingredients at the Phoenix Public Market. The Barrio Café, above right, has some of the best Mexican food around.
VISIT PHOENIX (PIZZERIA BIANCO); GREATER PHOENIX CVB (BARRIO CAFÉ)