Chris Bianco car­ries forth his pizza plans

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - BY AMY SCATTERGOOD amy.scattergood@la­times.com

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 made a pil­grim­age 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 Gourmet magazine. I didn’t keep my Match­box car col­lec­tion, but I kept those. Ruth Re­ichl in­vited me to New York and we did a pizza thing, and I re­mem­ber walk­ing into that lobby and they had ev­ery Gourmet cover on that wall and I re­mem­ber star­ing, think­ing, I re­mem­ber you, I re­mem­ber you. When you can hu­man­ize pa­per, it be­comes re­ally pow­er­ful.

Some cook­books don’t 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 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. No matter where I am — stuck in the el­e­va­tor or any place — I find great things at work.

David Lof­tus

PHOENIX pizza leg­end Chris Bianco of the renowned Pizze­ria Bianco, here haul­ing loaves at his Pane Bianco res­tau­rant, has a cook­book out — his first — as well as big plans for Los Angeles.

Ecco

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