PHOENIX — Gronk was throwing a beach party up in Scottsdale. Shaq had sponsored a concert with Snoop Dogg. At the PGA’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, you might need to trade a kidney to get into a luxury box surrounding the famous par-3 16th.
And who knows what it takes to score an invite to one of Roger Goodell’s champagne and caviar events.
And yet, arguably the most exclusive spot in all of Arizona for Super Bowl weekend is a small, one-story brick pizza joint on the east side of downtown Phoenix.
You want to sample the fare at Pizzeria Bianco, well, listen to the words of host Brian Green on Saturday afternoon.
“Right now you’re looking at a 3:45 to 4 1/2 hour wait,” Green said in a calm, measured tone to a family of Kansas City Chiefs fans.
Yeah, that’s right, 4 1/2 hours.
The Chiefs family left, but obviously plenty of others decided to stay, whether they had heard about the mind-boggling wait times, were actually drawn to the place because of them or naively walked up and thought they’d get something like a Hot-N-Ready.
Instead, they found the opposite. The pizza is plenty hot when it comes out of the round, wood-fired brick oven in the middle of the small dining room. It’s just yours won’t be ready anytime soon. (Oh, and the specialty ones can run up to $20 for a 12-inch).
Chris Bianco began making pizzas out of the back of a Phoenix grocery store in 1988 before opening this place. In 2003, he became the first pizzaiolo to win a James Beard Award. By 2005, Pizzeria Bianco was hailed in the book “Slice of Heaven” as the best pizza in America. The Food Network, the New York Times, Gourmet and Martha Stewart arrived heaped additional praise.
A phenomenon was born. The best pizza in America is in … Phoenix?
“New York City might not agree with that,” said Lauren Crittenden, who hails from Los Angeles and was in town for the Super Bowl. She and her father James had just braved the wait and had the famous pizza. They weren’t sure how to rank all the pizza in the entire country, but they weren’t disappointed either. This is in the discussion.
“It’s really good,” James said.
There was no shortage of people trying to find out. There is almost always a lengthy, multi-hour wait, but with so many people in town for the Super Bowl and golf tournament, this week pushed the limits. Wait times exceeded five hours.
Part of that is by design. The restaurant has just 49 seats, including six at a small wooden bar and 16 out on a brick patio in front. It could jam more in or expand the building, but that just isn’t what they do. If you want the pizza, you wait. To make it comfortable (and profitable), they also own a small house next door that’s been converted to a bar and beer garden.
There is no takeout. There is no delivery. “Dine in only,” Green patiently explained, over and over and over. There is no food in the bar area or garden while you wait. When — or if — you get seated, you have one chance to order pizza and you can’t just order something like 10 pies and carry them out for an auction to the hungry, huddled masses out front.
As host, Green is the man trying to organize it all. There may be no one better at his or her job in all of Arizona. He combines an endlessly upbeat personality with a Patrick Mahomes-like ability to slip in and out of potential trouble in the pocket.
He deals with disbelief, and occasional anger, from customers, repeated attempts to see where they sit on the list and even bribes. There are stories of people in line trying to pay off seated customers to order extra pizza for them.
“I get offers all the time,” Green said. “But people are waiting four hours. If I ever took one they’d kill me.”
“No one ever gives a figure, they just say, ‘What’s it going to take to get this done?’” Green said. “And I just give my spiel.”
Here at the Super Bowl, everything, especially access, is for sale. There are parties and then VIP areas inside the party. There are tickets to the game, and then luxury suites. The more you spend, the more you get.
Except here. The only currency is patience. It’s a shock to the sensibilities of some.
“Oh yeah, it can be rough,” Green said. “But generally, it’s not too bad. People are generally happy to be here.”
If there was a way to get in faster, Harry Rosenberg of Los Angeles probably would have tried it but the system is the system. So seeking a single spot at the bar and hoping it would take less than three hours, he settled in on a bench under a tree and relaxed.
“It’s a good bench,” Rosenberg noted.
Next to him was Chris Hall of San Antonio, who initially hoped to get lunch before going to pick up his daughter at the airport. The wait was so long, though, he might have her just come and meet him here.
“If I got a blanket I could sleep here and eat breakfast the next day,” Hall said with a laugh. “My girlfriend said it’s a great place and I had to go.”
There were mixed reactions when people approached Green seeking a table. The ones that knew shrugged at hearing four hours and were just glad he didn’t say five. They put their name down and headed to the bar. Others were incredulous.
“Four hours? Can I get takeout?”
Green: “Sorry, no takeout. Just dine in.”
On and on it went, except enough people decided to stay so the wait kept getting longer. In speaking with potential customers, it was noted that this story would be written and published before they ever got to eat. They just laughed. Rosenberg eventually got seated and texted a celebratory picture — “I’m in!”
This is the experience and an experience not everyone can pull off. Anyone can buy their way into the Gronk party. Only the few, the proud and the starving get a shot at the “Wise Guy” with wood-roasted sweet onions and fennel sausage.
Jason Calvert of Chicago was here with his wife Emily and local friends Sara Paull and Eric O’Brien. They got in line before Pizzeria Bianco opened and got a table fairly quickly. As they ate the famed pizza, Jason understood why others would spend a large portion of the day waiting.
The pizza is that good.
“I’m not going to wait 3-5 hours for a pizza,” Calvert said in a deadpan.
“But this is close.”