Chris Bianco’s Search for the Best Tomatoes

Bronx-born Chris Bianco has his childhood asthma to thank for his kitchen know-how:

it kept him indoors often, and to pass the time he watched his aunt Margie cook. By age 13 he was working in pizza kitchens and when, as a young adult, he found himself unemployed after an impromptu move to Phoenix, he started making mozzarella in his apartment and selling it to local restaurants. Impressed with his cheese game, a specialty grocer offered him a corner of their shop to use as a makeshift pizzeria, and he dove in. After a few years he drifted up to Santa Fe, where he fell in with Chez Panisse alums Deborah Madison and David Tanis, who’d moved to New Mexico and opened Café Escalera, and who together opened Chris’ eyes to the developing farm-to-table revolution that had taken root in Bay Area restaurants a decade earlier.

He moved back to Phoenix with a renewed dedication to pizza, realizing “that what I had, what was in me, was something of value.” All those years of watching aunt Margie at the stove, stretching dough at the pizza shop, making mozz in his apartment, cooking with Deborah and David… it all came together at Pizzeria Bianco. In a city made of strip malls, he would run his restaurant out of an old brick machine shop. The menu would be short, the ingredients would be the best. Every year, he obsessively tasted every brand of tomato he could find, and every year, he settled on San Marzanos grown in Italy. But something about making cheese fresh every morning from local milk, creating dough with grain grown and milled one town over, and using produce from local farmers only to pair it with sauce made from tomatoes grown halfway around the world never felt quite right. Chris started looking closer to home, and like many before him, he had his eureka moment in California.

"each dish tells a story of community and our human experience with the natural world."

~ Chris Bianco

Based in San Jose, Rob DiNapoli’s family has been canning fruit and veg from the Golden State’s fertile fields since the 1930s, and his dedication to using only the highest quality produce put him in rare company. Upon meeting, the two tomato-obsessives began the hunt for a farmer they could partner with, someone willing to grow crops from imported Italian seedstock to exacting standards. They found that partner in Cliff Fong, a second-generation Yolo County farmer who’d converted his family’s 600 acres to organic in the early 80s. The missing link finally found, the three endeavored on a years-long quest to perfect the canned tomato, and in our estimation they succeeded. Picked at peak ripeness, washed, steam-peeled, and hand selected, they are packed with nothing but a hint of sea salt and a leaf of fresh basil before being topped with their own juices. No stabilizers, no firming agents, nothing but pure tomato flavor, the product of long hot days in the California sun and fanatical attention to detail from 3 people who care a lot about delicious food. Chris likes to say that "each dish tells a story of community and our human experience with the natural world." With Bianco DiNapoli Tomatoes, he’s written one of our favorites.

All photos are via @biancodinapolitomatoes