For a quarter century, Chris Bianco’s namesake pizzeria has garnered national acclaim, but Pizzeria Bianco ceased long ago to be his only venture. Another enterprise, Pane Bianco, has been around for over a decade-and-a-half. Pane Bianco began as a sandwich shop with just a handful of items available for takeout or consumption on picnic tables outside. Since then, it has gone through several transformations, trying on new identities but never losing sight of its core mission of serving minimalistic preparations of fresh, high-quality ingredients on fresh bread.
Pane Bianco’s original location just across from the Campbell/Central light rail station long ago matured with the addition of a full-service dining room next to the original carryout counter. In the restaurant’s latest move, a second location has opened on Van Buren. It’s at the upper end of walking distance, just over half a mile, from the 12th Street / Washington (westbound) and 12 Street / Jefferson (eastbound) light rail stations. A proposed infill station at 16th Street, if ever constructed, would provide much closer rail service to this second Pane Bianco restaurant.
At either location, bike racks are found right outside. At the Central Avenue location, customers can use one door to reach the counter and another to reach the dining room, although the two are connected on the inside. At the Van Buren site, there’s no takeout counter. Instead, there’s a much larger dining room with a coffee counter up front and a full bar towards the back. Both addresses offer a full-service lunch experience, but only Central Avenue offers the classic Pane Bianco experience of eating sandwiches on picnic tables while watching the trains go by.
The two Panes have menus that are not quite 100% identical, but the overlap is considerable. The fundamentals remain some of the same ingredients used at Pizzeria Bianco: supple mozzarella, fresh basil, vibrant tomatoes, cured meats, and, of course, bread baked on site. A mozzarella sandwich remains a classic item with only a little olive oil, salt, and pepper augmenting the harmonious union of the three traditional caprese ingredients of cheese, basil, and tomato. Omitting the bread, the same trio works equally well as an entree-sized salad.
Other constants on the menu include sandwiches in which the crusty bread is filled with tuna, prosciutto, or soppressata. As with the mozzarella sandwich, all of these allow simple ingredients to shine with little adulteration. At the Van Buren location, another sandwich known as “Francesca’s Meatballs” has become a permanent part of the menu. Rather than using circular bread fashioned from pizza dough, this treat uses a hard roll fashioned in much the same way as Bianco’s baguette and filled with multiple meatballs, marinara, and parmesan.
It’s the market sandwiches, however, that keep the menu interesting at each location. Sandwiches with roast pork, lamb, or chicken seasoned with tomatillo are among the options that may be offered on any given day. Likewise, there’s always a market salad with ingredient combinations such as arugula, grapefruit, goat cheese, and pistachios featuring the bounty of local farms. Most essentially, there’s a generous plate of simple salad of mixed greens, lightly dressed, every day, and each sandwich is served with a small side salad of whatever is fresh.
Two other items add to the lunchtime possibilities at Pane Bianco. The first is a thick, mild vegetable soup. A cup of that pairs well with a slice of pizza al taglio, a completely different experience from the Neapolitan pies found at Pizzeria Bianco. Pizza al taglio is Roman street food, baked in trays and sold in rectangular slices for eating on the go. It’s crisper and thicker than regular Bianco pizzas. In terms of toppings, a simple caprese is always served, but one or two other varieties with toppings such as broccoli, goat cheese, or prosciutto are usually offered.
Desserts at both locations include a simple rice pudding, adorned not with the usual raisins but instead a bit of fruit compote in the center, and a decadent flourless chocolate cake. If these sound familiar, they’re both known from the menu at Pizzeria Bianco, where they’ve been standards for years. Additional choices include a varied selection of pastries, some coming from the.dinersaur, which now operates in Pane Bianco’s kitchen at the Central Avenue location. The Van Buren location also serves coffee and espresso. At Central, look to neighboring Lux for that.
There’s a lot more going on at each location, and it seems to change periodically. The Central Avenue location’s extensive back-of-house square footage serves as a sort of test kitchen and is the hub where flour is milled for use in bread and pizza crusts at all Bianco restaurants. In addition to housing Le Dinersaur, Pane Bianco has served as the home base for Cutino hot sauces, which are sold at both restaurants. The most recent change is that the Van Buren location now offers a breakfast menu, a feature unique in the realm of Bianco restaurants.
Although both restaurants are currently open only during daylight hours, each has a liquor license. On Central Avenue, it’s draft beer and wine only. On Van Buren, those choices are augmented with cocktails, mainly as an accompaniment for weekend brunch service. With two locations and numerous twists and turns along the way, Pane Bianco has managed to maintain the quality of its core product, the sandwiches, while remaining open to innovation and experimentation that supports the entire Bianco family of restaurants and their customers.
September 11, 2020 Update: The Van Buren location mentioned above has been replaced by another restaurant, Tratto. The original location on Central Avenue remains Pane Bianco.
4404 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012