With the heat, vibrant culture and close proximity to the border, many would think that downtown Phoenix would be a hub for Southwestern cuisine. But Phoenix is quickly becoming the epicenter of cheesy deliciousness.
Pizza is everywhere in central Phoenix, with Cibo, Pizzeria Bianco, Pizza People Pub, Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana, The Parlor Pizzeria and Federal Pizza serving the gooey, lovable dish that everyone enjoys. At last count, the Downtown Business Improvement District — from 7th Street to 3rd Avenue and from Fillmore to Jackson Street — boasts a staggering 14 pizzerias, most of them independent restaurants.
“Pizza is a food everyone likes and it’s great to have a choice for different types,” said Doug MacKenzie, director of media relations at Visit Phoenix. “It’s great to have a wide variety of local pizza. It’s better than having a bunch of chain restaurants, without a doubt.”
MacKenzie said the explosion of independent, gourmet pizza restaurants in the Central Corridor boosts the city’s image when visitors see that Phoenix has more than just Mexican restaurants and places that serve cowboy burgers.
“Pizza is a great food,” said Eric Husti, a manager at The Parlor Pizzeria. “It’s becoming a trend because it’s an easy, go-to food item. More people gravitate to a straight-forward approach.”
Experts said the growing number of pizza restaurants actually adds to Phoenix’s urban sophistication, particular when visitors dine at award-winning independent restaurants like Pizzeria Bianco and Cibo, which makes its home in a restored 1913 bungalow with hardwood floors and exposed brick.
Pizzeria Bianco, originally opened by Chris Bianco in a central Phoenix grocery store in 1987, has been rated as the best pizza in the United States by Bon Appétit, Vogue, Rachael Ray and Andrew Zimmern. The pizza has also earned raves from Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, GQ and Gourmet. In 2003, Bianco won the James Beard Foundation Award for best Southwest Chef, becoming the only pizza chef to have won a regional award, and the restaurant received a nearly perfect Zagat score of 29 in 2000. Pizzeria Bianco was also featured in Peter Reinhart’s book, “American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza.”
“We don’t have a definitive idea about whether we’re all higher end or quick-style restaurants,” Bianco said, and added that he doesn’t think that Phoenix has developed a food identity. With its rapid resurgence and the growing presence of higher education facilities and cutting-edge bioscience research centers, Bianco sees downtown Phoenix becoming a more diverse environment, with more people living downtown and a much more diverse range of restaurants and retail shops.
“We’re on our way to maturing as a city and then we’ll have developed a food identity,” Bianco said. Until then, many of the tourists and Valley residents who venture downtown for Suns, Mercury or Diamondbacks games, or performances at US Airways Center, Comerica Theatre, Herberger Theater or Stand Up Live, are taking a slice out of downtown’s pizza scene. The rise of such a simple dish shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of culinary sophistication, experts said.
Chef Glenn Humphrey, an instructor at the Arizona Culinary Institute, said Phoenix has had a solid dining scene for a long time and both casual and fine dining options are on the rise, especially when it comes to pizza. “Good competition breeds better product,” Humphrey said. “Pizza is America’s favorite food. If they have good, quality pizza, it raises the level of dining excellence all around.”
Craig DeMarco and Lauren Bailey, who have owned Federal Pizza for five years, have seen the explosion of gourmet pizza restaurants in Phoenix and don’t see the growing competition as a problem. “We believe there is plenty of business to go around,” DeMarco said. “As long as you have a quality product and high standards for what you serve, you’ll do fine.”
Federal Pizza does something that separates them from other artisan-style pizzerias. Federal is the the only place in town where you can go through a drive-through to get an artisan-style pizza. “We sell beer and wine, too,” Bailey said. “That’s one of the factors that makes us stick out.”