Chris Bianco, a high-school dropout who became the country’s foremost pizzaiolo at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, is a chef who often thinks about “the duality” of life. He understands better than most that the restaurant industry was difficult long before it became glamorous and that it’s still difficult, no matter what you’ve accomplished. He, like animated social-media sensation Lennnie, knows that life is about wave after wave.
So last Thursday, just three days after he presented a James Beard award in Chicago, Bianco was giving away pizza at his forthcoming Los Angeles restaurant. He had invited neighbors at the Row DTLA complex that houses Pane Bianco, the slice-and-sandwich spot he plans to open this week, but anybody who walked by was welcome.
A quick stroll away from Pane Bianco in the same adaptive-reuse real estate development is LA’s Pizzeria Bianco, which Bianco debuted last year with slices and sandwiches for lunch. He’s now transitioning lunch at Pizzeria Bianco into a menu that has the six iconic pizzas (margherita, marinara, Sonny Boy, Wiseguy, Rosa and Biancoverde) he established himself with in Arizona. (These pizzas, not surprisingly, have made Pizzeria Bianco a popular dinnertime destination in Los Angeles.)
So to be clear: The most famous pizza maker in America, who in 2022 had his own episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table and won the James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurateur, who’s already drawn crowds to Row DTLA for slices and sandwiches, still felt the need to test out Pane Bianco with free samples.
“We’re getting close, man,” Bianco told Observer. “It feels really fucking good. The thing is, to do something special, you need a lot of runway. And the only way to handle it is to creep into it. And that’s never good for my fucking accountant or for me, actually. It’s great to just be busy and everything’s perfect and we’re in sync. But I’ve been doing this a long fucking time. And no matter what you do, it’s kind of the opposite at the beginning. You would think I could just flip a switch, but I’ve only become more cautious.”
That said, the 61-year-old Bianco is energized by the whole arduous process. The original Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix opened in 1988. The original Pane Bianco in Phoenix opened in 2004. Bianco has spent most of his life working in restaurants. But there are days when he kind of believes that all of this has aged him in reverse.
“I don’t know, man, I was 19 a week ago and I’m sure you were, too,” Bianco said.
LA’s Pane Bianco, located in a space that was part of The Manufactory (a short-lived 40,000-square-foot behemoth that Tartine’s Chad Robertson and Bianco created), is a casual affair. The counter-service restaurant is starting with lunch on Tuesday through Saturday, and Bianco hopes to eventually extend the hours until 7 p.m. The menu includes New York-style slices and pies, alla pala slices (including bangers like a Meyer lemon slice), split focaccia sandwiches and market salads.
There are no reservations. Guests can dine at communal tables, the counter along the window, a covered patio or the ample outdoor seating that’s all over Row DTLA. Bianco likes the urban park-life feeling of the massive development. And he said that, at his age, he appreciates how there’s a huge parking garage at this downtown destination.
Bianco has a strong team including head chef Marco Angeles and sous chef Alvaro Lopez, so he knows that his role isn’t being the guy in front of the oven every day. He’s here to help dial in details, to greet guests and to touch tables. He wants his restaurants to be about “illuminating the talent” he has in the kitchen. He sees Pane Bianco as a way to give Angeles and Lopez more of a leadership role.
“I don’t pretend to prop myself up for 18 hours a day like I used to, but I think I’ve found a place in my old age to have maybe some sage advice to help the next generation,” Bianco said. “They can build it better and stronger and faster than I ever could.”
One thing Bianco has to offer is perspective.
“There’s a triage effect when you open a restaurant,” he said. “It’s not the greatest when it opens and it’s not the worst. It’s an inkling of what the opportunity is. It sets the intention. I think we’re in a world where people quickly declare that something is king or it fucking sucks. I think both those things could use some reshuffling.”
Bianco wants to make it clear that he’s trying to provide two distinct experiences at Row DTLA. Pizzeria Bianco, which also has dinner-only items like pasta and chicken Francese, is for those days when you have time to sit down and enjoy a meal with wine in beautiful stemware and pizza you eat at a table that has proper plates and cutlery. Pane Bianco is built for quick meals on paper plates, even lunches you devour standing up, and takeout.
“Why would I do something that sells pizza around the corner from where I sell pizza?” Bianco said. ”It’s about a deliverable experience that’s appropriate to what you need at that moment. When I have time, I just want to submit and I’m going to have a drink. I’m going to have a bottle of wine and a Rosa and dessert. But I see an arc where sometimes I’m hungry and I’ve only got 35 minutes.”
In terms of Bianco’s personal arc, he’s not shy about the fact that The Manufactory closed and that maybe it wasn’t the wisest thing for him to not serve his famous pizza there. (Before he opened Pizzeria Bianco in Los Angeles, he said that coming back to Row DTLA was like returning “to the scene of my own crime.”) But he wouldn’t be back at this location if the overall experience he had here wasn’t positive. For one thing, he first worked with Angeles at Tartine Manufactory. And he loves being part of a complex with vibrant restaurants like Kato, Hayato and Rappahannock Oyster Bar as well as the Smorgasburg food market, boutique shopping and David Chang’s Majordomo Media.
Bianco mentions how he went to a Led Zeppelin concert as a teenager and got upset when the band walked off stage without playing “Stairway to Heaven”. And then he cheered up when he learned that concerts have an encore.