Rance Ruiz is planning for something big—you can sense it upon entering his eponymous spot in Costa Mesa. IPAs and other craft beers flow from taps, from cans and bottles. Three flat-screen TVs broadcast ESPN. Seating is a collection of tables, the better to share brews and slices, as well as to talk with one another. Ruiz and his crew approach each customer multiple times with info about the weekday happy-hour special and to recommend other topping combinations for future visits. Most audaciously, Ruiz serves only pizza as an entrée—no pasta, no calzones, just pizza (the salads, while fine, don't count). And if you've come in for a quick lunch or dinner, you're relegated to ordering by the slice.
In Orange County's premier city for pizza culture, Rance's Chicago Pizza is asserting itself by operating under the restaurant equivalent of no safety net. Even taquerías hedge their bets by offering other meals, but Ruiz is confident in the allure of his pizzas, in the stretch of his Wisconin mozzarella, the freshness of the in-house tomato sauce, the quality of the meats, veggies and dough. And he has a trump card: Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza, those bricks of cheesy crunch best approached with fork and knife. He's not a native—by Ruiz's own admission, he got the idea after visiting a sister who was studying in the Windy City, so there are no over-the-top homages to sports teams and architectural landmarks as you see at too many restaurants that claim to mimic a city's food culture à la Philly cheesesteak houses and Memphis 'cue joints—but it doesn't matter. His pies are as legit as Rush Street, and it's all about the cheese. It starts as flowing, milky chunks at the beginning of a slice that start to harden with each bite as you get closer to the sturdy crust, finishing with blackened, caramel-esque sprinkles at the end that would work wonderfully as a topping on a hot dog. His stuffed pizza (two layers of cheese) is even better: cheese buried under a swamp of tomato sauce, then baked so it's almost as flaky as baklava.
The only real problem I find with Rance's is the location: lost in a huge shopping plaza anchored by all sorts of bad chains, with its storefront facing the exit of a perpetually packed parking lot. Oh, and I wish Ruiz sold his stuffed pizzas by the slice, too. But the place has only been open since September; a kid this ballsy will knock down those problems with the ease of Brian Urlacher flattening a Packer.
This column appeared in print as “Cheesy Bricks of Crunch.”