Photos by Michelle and Linda
"There's no mystery to my pizza. Sicilian oregano, organic flour, San Marzano tomatoes, purified water, mozzarella I learned to make a Mike's Deli in the Bronx, sea salt, fresh yeast cake, and a little bit of yesterday's dough. In the end great pizza, like anything else, is all about balance. It's that simple."
~Chris Bianco, as reported by Ed Levine of The New York Times
|My daughter declares our homemade thin crust pizza Instagram-worthy.
|Insider's Tip: HUB, next door to Pizzeria Bianco, offers mighty fine ice cream that is made on premises.
|Pizzeria Bianco in downton Tucson on Congress Street, near the University of Arizona.
|Our gang arrived early to avoid seating delays.
|Sisters are doin' it for themselves. Go girl! Fire that pizza.
Once seated in the small dining room, it's a quick turn around from ordering to eating. This is the reverse of hurry up and wait. At Bianco it's wait, then hurry up. Why, you might ask? Because there are more semi-crazy people, just like me, that are outside waiting, tapping there fingers on a wood slat, or idly lying on the grass, clicking down the minutes until it is their turn at a table. My husband flat out refused to go. No way was he signing-up to wait three plus hours for a table, no matter how good the pizza might be.
Once you are fortunate enough to be seated there is no lingering indulgently over multiple courses. There are no cocktails—craft or otherwise—and the wine and beer list is short but good, featuring local purveyors such as Dos Cabezas Wineworks and Four Peaks Brewing Company. Once seated, it's time to get down to the business of eating. Thankfully, the menu is limited, making it easier to choose between two appetizers, three salads and six pizzas. This ain't no TGIF or Applebee's, and that's a good thing. Under the get in, and get out mantra, the restaurant does not offer dessert. Guests are not given the opportunity to monopolize a table by lounging over something sweet. That's fine by me. I rarely order dessert anyway.
Over time, Chris was able to lease the historic bungalow next door to the original restaurant, and he opened Bar Bianco, which offers wine and appetizers—making the wait for dinner a little more tolerable—especially if you snag a table on the covered porch and you are lucky enough to coincide your visit with the advent of a beautiful spring afternoon. Inside the restaurant, it is all about the steady hum of proficient service taking place, and the turning of tables. The waiters expedite the ordering process in a friendly and professional way. That's not to say we did not enjoy ourselves—we absolutely did—but we just enjoyed ourselves in a timely fashion. Because Chris made it a priority to make every pizza himself for years upon years, we were pretty much assured that we'd see Chris hard at work, master of his craft, throwing the pizzas, and firing each one to perfection in the blazing hot wood-fired brick oven, while his eyes scouted the room, and he made small conversation with the appreciative diners. Our kids drew him pictures with crayons, and he graciously took the time to say thank you and give them something in return. My daughter, Maddie, still has the bling, a Bianco pin, that Chris gave to her.
|Bianco's Wiseguy and Sonny Boy wood-fired pizzas and a nice simple salad.
The Salvation Sisters' Mom and her grandson Jordan.
|I added smokey and delicious wood roasted mushrooms to my Wiseguy at Pizzeria Bianco.
Although Linda and I have been mostly eating gluten-free for a couple of years now, with a wheat splurge here and there (I cannot tell a lie), I cautiously broached the subject of dining at the recently opened Pizzeria Bianco in Tucson. It was doubtful that Chris would be behind the counter, throwing the pizzas, but it would still be his signature offerings. Linda said that eating at Pizzeria Bianco was most definitely on her bucket list, and had been for awhile, so it would be great to finally cross it off during her visit in December for Sistercation.
I recommended we arrive at the restaurant soon after it opens for dinner because one cannot tell how busy it will be, even in small town Tucson. The city's population swells significantly in the winter due to tourists, part-time residents who live here half the year (referred to as snowbirds by the locals), and university students (but the college kids will probably be eating somewhere less expensive). When my husband, Jay and Maddie and I dined at the Tucson location previously, it was mercifully only a twenty minute wait. I like that time frame much better than the typical three plus hour wait time in Phoenix.
According to plan, Linda and I, along with our mother, Dianne, Linda's son, Jordan, and Jay walked in the door shortly after the restaurant opened on a Thursday night. We were seated immediately. Since there was no line out the door and plenty of tables open, we felt we could really relax and enjoy ourselves at the start of the holiday season. We ordered wine and appetizers. Then salads and pizza. Linda had a field day capturing photos of the servers and the cooks baking those famous thin-crust pies. In particular, Linda and I enjoyed ourselves immensely, but our mom could not understand what the hot fuss was about. Our dear mother, in true mom fashion, insists that the pizzas that we sisters make are every bit, if not better, than Pizzeria Bianco. Well, that's the goal, but we still bow to the master. Chris and his team make damn fine pizzas.
|Linda ordered Bianco's version of the classic Margherita: tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil.
|Linda appreciates the char on Bianco's crust which adds a smoky flavor to the pizza.
Most home ovens top out at 450 degrees and have limited air circulation unless you are fortunate to have a true convection oven, which are popular in Europe, but not so popular here in the States. Commercial pizza ovens hover in the 600 to 700 degree range, whereas brick ovens in Italy are super hot—anywhere from 750 to 900 degrees, and possibly up to 1,000 degrees. The Neapolitan-style pizzas cook in the ultra-hot oven in about 90 seconds flat. Of course, that's with very sparse toppings. The more toppings on a pizza, the longer it will take to cook. In our prior posts about pizza, we recommended buying a baking stone encased in a steel frame that fits on a gas grill. We've had great success with the grill cooking method, and still use it upon occasion, especially in the summer when the air conditioner is doing its best to cool the house here in Tucson, and we want to keep anything that generates heat outside in the greater outdoors.
Even though we've been pretty happy with the pizzas we prepare at home, I'm always on the lookout for new techniques that may improve our homemade pizzas even further. A couple years ago Saveur magazine dedicated an entire issue to making the ultimate pizza. I was pleased to see they covered the outdoor grill method, but what I read about with interest is a method of increasing a home oven's temperature by using the broiler setting to create really intense heat. According to the author, after 30 minutes of running the broiler over a pizza stone, a temperature gun registered the heat on the stone's surface at 770 degrees. What the good folks at Saveur discovered is that they could cook a pizza in two minutes and the intense heat improved the crust—it was airy and bubbly inside—the fresh cheese melted beautifully and the tomato sauce didn't have an overcooked flavor.
Not long after I read the article in Saveur, I was once again reading Tartine Bread from cover to cover. This famous bakery in San Francisco has a daily output of naturally fermented breads that cannot keep up with demand. In the cookbook, the author and owner of the bakery, Chad Robertson, writes that he uses his famous dough to make homemade pizza. Chad's opening statement for his pizza recipe resonated with me, "On occasion, we pinch some dough and bring it to the apartment upstairs to make pizza for dinner. We're fortunate to have an old gas oven with a shelf broiler and broken thermostat. With the heating element cranked to broil and a terracotta tile positioned right above it, the oven turns out a blistery pie in about 3 minutes. Our current pizza revival, with all the attitude, manifestos, and "secrets" (the flour! the water! the oven!), is amusing. Just start with good bread dough and a very hot baking stone, and you will end up with a great pizza." Yeah, what Chad said—it's all about the heat. I needed no further convincing. I committed to giving the broiler method a go.
|Yes, the dough is so thin you can see through it. The dough stretches without tearing.
|There is nothing like pizza fresh from the oven. Michelle and Maddie made this beauty.
The day after the luncheon, I used the last dough ball to make a pizza for dinner. I wasn't sure how the dough would do after 48 hours in the refrigerator, but it was just my husband and I for a quiet night in, so I thought what the heck... I'll give it a try. I'm happy to report that the crust was lovely. There was no degradation in quality of the dough from resting another 24 hours in the refrigerator. While the oven was preheating my husband and I enjoyed a cocktail, and we discussed our goals for the new year with my music mixes playing in the background to enliven the festive "date night" mood. It's fun to eat at home after mostly being on vacation for two weeks. My unencumbered free time is quickly coming to an end, and it's back to the real world soon. In the meantime, though, I thoroughly enjoyed my mighty fine pizza!
|Michelle's pizza featured here is tomato sauce, salami and olives.
The salad is a modified version of Rockin' French Salad.
I prefer to make the dough one day ahead and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight, which is referred to as cold fermentation. We also employ a bread technique called autolyse, a period of rest for the flour and water that helps build the gluten without having to knead the dough for a long time. This essential step for thoroughly hydrating the flour was developed by Julia Child's bread baking mentor, Raymond Calvel. This is an unfussy dough that is easy to prepare and it stretches beautifully without tearing.
Although the dough is made with all-purpose wheat flour, I like to use Mochiko rice flour when I'm "throwing out the dough", or in other words, when I'm stretching the dough into a traditional thin crust pizza. Rice flour has a finer texture than all purpose flour, and I think it is less obtrusive-tasting on the finished pizza.
My sister Juliette prefers pizzas made without tomato sauce, but I'm a fan of red sauce. Try our no cook Tomato Pizza Sauce, or for a delicious alternative prepare Michelle's Basil Pesto and spread it on the crust or dot on with dollops of soft goat cheese, such as chèvre—which is particularly creamy and delicious when paired with shrimp.
What I noticed at Pizzeria Bianco, and at finer pizza establishments, is that the crust is thin and the toppings are sparse. All the pizzas have no more than two toppings in addition to cheese and sauce. At Bianco's my two favorites are Sonny Boy (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, salami and olives) and Wiseguy (wood-roasted onion, smoked mozzarella, and fennel sausage).
|The dough needs to rest for twenty minutes before dividing and storing in the refrigerator.
Salvation Sisters' Freshly Made Thin Crust Pizza Dough
Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour
yellow finely ground cornmeal
olive oil or garlic oil
olive oil spray, optional
shredded mozzarella, or chunks of drained, fresh mozzarella
Tomato Pizza Sauce, Michelle's Basil Pesto or whatever sauce you like on your "pie"
pizza toppings of your choice
fresh herbs to scatter on the pizza, such as crumbled thyme leaves, minced rosemary and/or oregano
mesh pizza screen
pizza peel, optional
|We prefer to use salami over pepperoni. And, a lot of it, as you can see.
I like these meshed pans for cooking the pizza directly on the stone, although my preference
is to place the pizza directly on the stone using a peel.
1. Make the dough according to our original recipe for Freshly Made Thin Crust Pizza Dough. Prepare the dough one day ahead. Or, make the dough in the morning, and let it sit in the refrigerator until dinner time.
2. Make no cook Tomato Pizza Sauce, or for a delicious alternative try Michelle's Basil Pesto or whatever sauce you prefer.
3. An hour before making pizza, reheat the oven. Place an oven rack 4 inches under the broiler and top with a baking stone. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
4. If you are using fresh mozzarella, I recommend breaking the mozzarella balls into large chunks and then lightly sprinkle with sea salt and toss gently. Place the salted chunks into a sieve placed over a bowl or plate to drain. Less moisture on a baked pizza is a good thing.
4. After 30 minutes, remove the reserved pizza dough from the refrigerator. Pop the lids, to remove any pent up pressure, and let rest for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, turn the broiler on. For my oven, the broiler function is 550°F. I can broil with the oven door closed.
5.If using a pizza peel, generously sprinkle it with a combination of rice flour and cornmeal to prevent the fresh dough from sticking to the wood (or metal). If using a mesh pizza pan, spray it with olive oil and sprinkle with cornmeal.
|Coat the dough ball on all sides with Mochiko sweet rice flour.
|Employ the "steering wheel" method to coax a thin crust from a dough ball.
7. Lightly brush the pizza dough with olive oil or garlic oil, which helps the dough to resist getting soggy if toppings weep during baking. Top with the sauce of your choice; we use a generous 1/2 cup tomato sauce for a 12-inch pizza. If you are using commercial blocks of mozzarella, sprinkle the shredded cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano before adding the toppings, to help prevent the cheese from burning. If you are adding fresh mozzarella, add it while placing the toppings, so it will melt properly. If you are using a pizza peel, occasionally move the pizza peel to agitate the dough, to make sure it is still moving freely on top of the surface. You don't want the dough to stick to the peel when you transfer it to the hot pizza stone. If you are using a mesh pan, this step is not necessary as you will be placing the metal screen/pan directly on top of the pizza stone.
|Lay the shaped dough on a screen...
|... or, shape the dough and place directly on a rice flour and cornmeal covered pizza peel.
|If you are uncomfortable working with a a peel, simply use an open mesh screen
to transfer the pizza to the oven.
If you are using a pizza peel, agitate the pizza slightly to make sure it is not sticking to the peel. Place the peel towards the very back of the hot stone and with a determined, but slight jerking motion, slide the pizza to the hot stone. Quickly close the door and let the pizza broil for about 3 to 4 minutes. The pizza is done withe the crust has puffed and the crust chars in spots. Use a spatula to slide under the pizza to make sure it is not sticking and then remove the pizza from oven with the aid of the aforementioned spatula and a pizza peel or mesh pan. Slice and serve hot!
|This is called "leftovers" pizza... it has tomato sauce, salami, bacon,
barbecued chicken and kalamata olives.
|Use a spatula to loosen the pizza from the stone, then slide it onto a pan or
peel for easy removal from the oven.
|The perforated pan and matching tray are perfect for cutting and serving the pizza.
|We like our pizzas with a bit of char on the crust, which is called "leoparding" in the biz.