The union behind Union Jacks
23 October, 2011
by Tom Holman
Like many hot concepts, Bianco’s is built on simplicity, with six pizzas from perfected, hand-made dough and a handful of other menu options on offer.
Jamie Oliver’s involvement guarantees plenty of interest in Union Jacks when it launches in November, but his partner in the concept is less well known in the UK. Tom Holman profiles American pizza hero Chris Bianco
Not everything Jamie Oliver touches turns to gold, but most of it does. His Jamie’s Italian chain is one of casual dining’s biggest success stories of the past few years. That means the launch of his latest venture, Union Jacks, will be one of the most keenly watched openings of 2011.
The operation is billed as Oliver’s homage to British food, though the formula for Union Jacks has been kept tightly under wraps. But with the countdown now on to the November opening of the first restaurant, at the Central St Giles development in the West End of London, details are starting to emerge.
Union Jacks’ fledgling website bills it as the place “where wood-fired flatbreads meet great British flavours”. While Oliver will provide the latter, it is an American, Chris Bianco, who is firmly in charge of the former.
Bianco may be relatively unknown on these shores, but he is a legend in his own pizza dough in the US. He was born and bred in New York, but in 1985 Bianco won two tickets to fly anywhere in the US, chose Phoenix, Arizona and settled there for good. He learnt to make his own mozzarella and pizzas, and at first sold them through a deli in the city.
After a trip to Italy to fine-tune his skills, he opened his own Phoenix restaurant in 1994. The restaurant and its wood-burning oven quickly built a reputation for the best pizza in the US, scooping numerous awards, and endorsements from influential critics and celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, establishing Bianco as the pizzaiolo’s pizzaiolo.
Like many hot concepts, Bianco’s is built on simplicity, with six pizzas from perfected, hand-made dough and a handful of other menu options on offer. “There’s no mystery to my pizza,” Bianco once told the New York Times. “Sicilian oregano, organic flour, San Marzano tomatoes, purified water, mozzarella, sea salt, fresh yeast cake and a little bit of yesterday’s dough. In the end, great pizza, like anything else, is all about balance. It’s that simple.”
Nearly two decades on, the Pizzeria Bianco restaurant remains small and unassuming. With just 42 covers, it long ago outgrew its premises, and waits of several hours for a table are common. But that, as well as Bianco’s decision not to roll out his brand elsewhere, aside from a next-door bar and a Pane Bianco sandwich bar a few blocks away, has undoubtedly helped to preserve its almost mythical reputation.
So too did the almost obsessive personal involvement of Bianco, who cooked virtually all the pizzas himself until relinquishing operational duties in late 2009 for asthma-related health reasons. “My doctor says I have to keep my head out of the oven if I want to see 50,” he said at the time. He remains closely involved, but it was a measure of his reputation that his decision to step away from his beloved oven made national news in the US.
The opening of Union Jacks will show what Bianco has been up to since then. He met Oliver through a mutual friend, and the pair seemingly hit it off straight away. They have bonded over a shared love of British food, a philosophy of no-nonsense cooking that makes the most of great ingredients, and a belief that restaurants should not take themselves too seriously.
“No matter how important we think we are, we’ll never be more important than the ingredients,” Bianco once told the US Legends of Pizza website. “Pizza is something we never master ... on any given day it’ll kick your ass. If you disrespect it, it’ll disrespect you right back.”
It will be interesting to see how Bianco’s pizza and bread skills fuse with Oliver’s take on British food at Union Jacks. The concept’s website (www.unionjacksrestaurants.com) promises a menu that “combines Chris’ technical expertise and artisan dough-making with Jamie’s love of top-quality ingredients.”
The new friends and co-directors of Union Jacks certainly make a formidable pairing, and both seem humble and modest enough to learn from the other. So is this the start of another phenomenon like Jamie’s Italian? Or will it go the way of Barbecoa, Oliver’s barbeque concept with another American legend, Adam Parry Lang, which drew a lukewarm reception when it opened in London last year? There must be at least some risk of Oliver reaching for a brand extension too far, and his critics say he is overdue a failure. But they have been saying that for years. With Bianco also in tow, not many will be betting against Union Jacks.