Tonight, chef Adam Leonti will share his kitchen at Sessanta with chef Chris Bianco, of Phoenix restaurants Pizzeria Bianco and Tratto, as the two collaborate on a prix fixe menu celebrating recipes from Bianco’s first cookbook, Bianco: Pizza, Pasta, and Other Food I Like, which was published this week.
“To be able to come back to NYC and cook with friends to support a book that I scribbled down is probably the most surreal moment of my life,” says Bianco, a Bronx-born native who left New York in the Eighties for Arizona, hoping its dry climate would ease his asthma. His pizzas drew acclaim from all over the country, making two-hour waits the norm at his eateries. He hasn’t cooked in a restaurant in New York in over ten years, and though he starts out by giving myriad reasons for tonight’s collaboration — Sessanta restaurateur John McDonald is originally from Phoenix; Bianco has been an admirer of Leonti’s since his early days at Vetri in Philadelphia — he ultimately admits, “How it came together is that all chefs look for excuses to cook with [their] friends.”
As Bianco recounts the intended menu, it quickly becomes apparent that anything’s game after he and Leonti hit the farmers’ market for their final shop before the big night’s prep: “If we see something [great], then we’ll say, ‘Shit, we gotta get that in!’” There are plans, however, for a farinata (chickpea pancake), an “old-school, braised-out” dish of chicken and peppers, and a roasted black bass and agrodolce (sweetened vinegar sauce), which Bianco hopes can be served with early-season grapes, depending on what they find in the morning. There will be two pasta courses: a cavatelli with lamb sausage and mustard greens, along with a pasta that Bianco says will likely be made using a “gentle summer sauce of heirloom tomato passata,” which is typically uncooked. A purslane and watermelon salad, focaccia, and chanterelles served atop grilled polenta are also mentioned, along with the inclusion of “another protein.” A dessert trio of nutmeg Italian ice, bowls of plums, and Bianco’s mom’s lemon cookies will close out the meal.
“It’s just starting to sink in that I’m really here,” says Bianco, as he finishes musing over the menu. “When I was a kid, I would just walk and walk and walk — I’d purposely get lost; just look through the windows. It’s interesting to be back, as when I come to NYC, I’m here for the romance of it as much as anything else: the walks, the smells, the memories of it.”
He’s also back as a 55-year-old father of two, with one more on the way, his growing brood waiting for him back home out West. He’s reflective and humble, describing success as “volatile, fleeting, and vulnerable — you can screw it up on a moment’s notice.” Considering Pizzeria Bianco’s established reputation as the mecca of pizza aficionados, it’s as perplexing as it is endearing to hear a chef of his standing so grateful for each success and opportunity, while simultaneously downplaying his professional achievements. “To this day, I’ve never said anything that I did was the best,” says Bianco, as he discusses the concept of having a favorite pizza place. “‘The best’ is subjective — the best anything is what you like best.” But as uncomfortable as he is with any of his accolades, he is assured of how he’ll approach tonight’s dinner as well as the ones that follow: “I’ll definitely cook every meal like it’s the last one on Earth, because one day I’ll be right. I don’t want to waste any time.”