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January 22, 2011

Victory Pizza? One Degree of Separation

At a recent South-er of the James farmers market, I ran into Gina Collins while we both bought our Blanchards coffee from Taza’s table set up near Forrest Hill.  You might know Gina as the coordinator/spokesperson for Victory Farms CSA. Today, she wasn’t selling produce.  She was dressed in fashionable civies, and looked much more relaxed than I’ve ever seen her (we’ve been CSA members for two years now).

Put this stuff on your pizza.

We both approved of our Sumatran coffee.  She hoped that the cup would help with her migraine headache.  I jumped in with my compulsive comment that Sumatran is my favorite bean, at least when served at Hyperion Espresso in Fredericksburg.  She knew the place, and liked it.  But, for some reason, Gina always has a headache when visiting Fredericksburg.  Weird. I get chronic migraines. And I went to Mary Washington College… in Fredericksburg.  A four year long migraine.

In the awkward moment before acquaintances typically part ways, I mentioned my excitement over picking up four dough balls from Victoria’s Pizza Tonight stand (a topic I like to test out with people to a: find out if they love that dough as much as I do or b: turn them on to a great local food phenomenon that I think is likely to take off in a big way).  I think Gina’s reaction was something about not being able to find really great pizza in Virginia, especially having been spoiled by the pies back in Arizona, made by some guy named Chris Bianco.

(dramatic pause)

I broke into a stammer. Wait. Wait. You mean THE Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco?  Phoenix, Arizona, the unlikely home to the consensus best pizza in America, maybe the world?  Yup. Gina is smiling ear to ear now. Wow, I was jealous that she got to eat their pizza repeatedly.  I’ve started seeing that guy on Food Network shows like The Best Thing I Ever Ate.  But, wait. There’s more.  Before Victory Farms appeared in Central Virginia, they were farming in Arizona, from 1994-2005, running a CSA, supplying 25 restaurants with produce, including Pizzeria Bianco.

Best pizza in America?

If there’s one thing you hear about Chris Bianco, (besides the improbable story that he insists on assembling every pie himself) it’s that he’s extremely exacting over his ingredients. Only the best.  “No matter how important we think we are,” says Bianco. “We’ll never be more important than the ingredient…” What must it have been like to sell him vegetables. Answer? A very close relationship. Gina says they were like family, a part of the pizzeria operation, and there was lots of mutual admiration.  She went on to mention other items from the menu that reflected the Bianco passion, but I probably tuned it out (my brain focused on nothing but the legendary pizza, pizza, pizza).

I tried to think about what this revelation could mean for Richmond’s food scene. While drawing a blank, I felt bad for Gina. How could she eat the pizzas we’ve got here in Richmond after years of the pizza that favorite baker/author Peter Reinhart of mine praised over all others in American Pie, his book about going coast to coast, surveying American pizza styles?  In that book, Bianco says his pizza is “an expression of my soul.”  (easy fodder for fanaticism like mine, I’ll admit)  But, Gina’s also Italian. Her people are either from Napels (don’t remember what she said) or she’s been there and consequently has double the unrivaled archetypes atop her pizza paradigm.  What a burden.

Looking across the farmers market, after saying goodbye to Gina, I keep trying to put these pieces together.  Richmond has no “best something” in the country (we tend to fall just short with our per-capita murder rate).  Heck, I’d settle for a Pizzeria Bianco franchize.  Chris doesn’t need to know.  If Pizzeria Bianco rose to national acclaim while depending on Victory Farms’ produce, surely some essence of that pizza magic must have followed our new favorite local farmers here to Richmond.  But, where did it land? Who could have been touched by the pizza angels that Gina and Charlie clearly must be?

(dramatic pause #2)

Guess who's coming to your local farmers' market?

In. Other. News?

Starting this spring, Victoria Deroche will be at Richmond area farmers markets cooking her Pizza Tonight products in her brand new wood-fired oven on wheels.  Interestingly enough.  Victoria read Peter Reinhart’s American Pie and actually went to one of his pizza making institutes this past fall.  This, only shortly after a trip to get back to her Italian roots, including sampling pizzas in Naples.

Sure, we can bring home her pizza packets and have great success recreating the Pizza Club experience that served as her focus group.  You really do have to try hard to ruin a Pizza Tonight dough ball, the stuff is so freakin delicious and texturally satisfying.  But, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to eat that dough after it’s been topped according to Victoria’s scholarly wisdom and plucked steaming hot out of her brand new volcanic mobile culinary wonder?

I can’t imagine a better pizza, to be honest.  Easy to say, because it only exists in my mind at this point.  But, I’m not likely to make the trek out to Phoenix any time soon (and I hate standing in lines – epic, I hear, at Pizzeria Bianco).  Maybe the pizza Richmond has been waiting for is finally going to arrive (I’ve said this before).  I don’t mean to over-hype any of this – just trying to connect the dots, maybe before they’ve even come into to focus.

Interestingly, Peter Reinhardt’s perfect pizza search is resuming. There’s a project he’s involved in called Pizza Quest.  He’s back on the road to find out what makes a great pizza great, only this time with a camera crew (instead of his 35mm camera). The episodes will, hopefully, be accessible through cable TV (probably not a big network), but in the meantime, there are some excerpts online.  Anywho, the elements seem to be coming together for a Richmond media moment (in my mind, at least). I can almost see Peter Reinhart (film crew in tow) strolling up to the Victory Farms table at the Monument Market, asking Gina which of her veggies would have gone best on a Pizzeria Bianca pizza. Then, he carries his canvas bag of arugula, garlic scapes, and grape tomatoes over to Victoria’s mobile oven, which cues the theme music for the Richmond episode of Pizza Quest.

Hope I didn’t jinx it.

9 Responses to “Victory Pizza? One Degree of Separation”

  1. Paul says:

    Maybe it’s the two hearted ale talking, but this post is making me very hungry. I can’t wait until the prime of the summer veggie season intersects with the pizza tonight mobile oven. Best of luck to all involved!

  2. jasmine says:

    i just squealed with joy!

  3. Tim Vidra says:

    We just picked up our first yesterday and will be sampling tomorrow night!

    E.A.T.

  4. Victoria says:

    Wow thanks Jason. I really hope that I can follow through and live up to the pizza of your mind, I am going to try. I couldn’t be more thrilled with how things are going for Pizza Tonight. There have been loads of opportunities popping up for me lately and I’ve been trying to temper them while keeping up with (what for me is the most important part) cooking my food. I’ve gotten help in the kitchen with my friend and Chef Stephanie Lebow and have been inspired with the positive responses I’m getting everyday.

    I’m looking forward to sourcing from Victory Farms this spring and summer. And learning what I can from somebody who has such a long history providing amazing fresh/local food.

    Right now I am talking to the city about my permit… so far, so good. I hope (fingers crossed) we will be up and making pizzas by March. Joe and I go out to Colorado again in February for another wood fire burning class/demo. The people at the Fire Within have been so amazing. I feel very lucky to have such great community support. Thank you for all that you’ve done to help me. Cheers!

    • jasonguard says:

      Victoria. Hope you enjoyed this bit of flattery. Just having fun as a pizza fan. Glad you could chime in with actual developments on your end. A little bit of reality helps to round out any blog post. And that picture you posted to Twitter just needed to be shared and inspired me to include you in the Victory/Bianco anecdote.

  5. jmk says:

    Nice article – can’t wait to try Victoria’s Pizza Tonight!

  6. Jeannette says:

    Great article, incredible dough, I have even made just the dough, put a little oil and throw it in the oven, makes a great focaccia. When it comes out put a little salt on top, so yum.

  7. Alas, Chris Bianco is no longer making pizzas. He developed a severe wheat allergy, and even touching the dough was making him seriously ill. http://www.azcentral.com/thingstodo/dining/articles/2010/01/27/20100127chris-bianco-gone.html But his longtime, family-like staff is still there, and he’s still very much involved.

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