For over 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 nearly two decades. 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. Since then, there have been numerous changes that have come and gone, including evening service with a full pizza menu, a short-lived second location on Van Buren (now home to Tratto), and an experiment with big 18-inch pizzas during the pandemic. Those temporary changes reinforce Pane’s identity as a test kitchen for the Bianco restaurants and related businesses.
At Pane today, all customers enter through the carryout area. Customers who wish to eat on the patio outside, recently upgraded from the original picnic tables, or take their food off-site, order at the counter. Those who prefer full service in the dining room turn left and find a seat at one of the rustic wood tables or at the small bar counter. Either way, the menu is the same simple one-page list of standards augmented by chalkboards in both the dining room and the carryout area listing numerous daily specials, almost equal in quantity to the regular classic menu items.
The fundamentals remain some of the same ingredients used at Pizzeria Bianco: supple cheeses, 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. In fact, all of the standard sandwiches on the menu are available in a salad format.
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. 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 featuring the bounty of local farms.
A few 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 margherita is often served, but one or two other varieties with toppings such as broccoli, goat cheese, or prosciutto are usually offered.
A recent addition to the menu is a calzone. It’s amazing that this inside-out pizza, long a staple at many pizzerias, has only now made its debut appearance on a Bianco menu. As with pizza and sandwiches, the approach is minimalistic and ingredient focused. Bianco’s calzone is stuffed with a mixture of mozzarella and ricotta cheeses and fresh leaves of spinach and basil. Tomato sauce and grated parmesan top the finished product, which is sized appropriately for one person. Any of the meats used in sandwiches can be added for an additional charge.
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 sweets include simple treats like chocolate chip cookies and Italian ice in both chocolate and nutmeg flavors. The latter allows a spice that typically plays a supporting role to have an opportunity in the spotlight, and the result is surprisingly satisfying.
Pane’s Bianco’s back-of-house square footage serves as a sort of laboratory for new product development and is the hub where flour is milled for use in the bread and pizza crusts at all Bianco restaurants. The carryout area up front has an added function as a small market where customers can purchase not only Bianco’s bread, cookies, and canned tomatoes, but also products like Cutino hot sauce from the expanded family of friends of Bianco. For anyone too stuffed for dessert right after lunch, small bags of cookies are available to buy on the way out.
Although the restaurant is currently open only during daylight hours for lunch service, it has a liquor license for beer and wine with an emphasis on local craft brews and a few well selected vintages. Other beverage options include iced tea, bottled sodas, and sparkling water. With numerous changes, adaptations, and detours 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.
4404 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012