To Eat Pizza, Or Not to Eat Pizza? Is That Even a Question?

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Rances : The Only Way to Eat Pizza

Spending my usual Wednesday evening with my child (especially because I hate doing the same thing over and over again) can be quite a challenge.  I have cycled through a list of restaurants that we both like and have moved on to finding more obscure things.  That doesn’t mean we can’t go back to these other restaurants ever, but I love my Wednesday daddy daughter date night to be something different and original.  Someday I am hoping that my daughter actually expresses an opinion about it all and we will run off to some out of the way place that’s new to me. Until that day happens, I am the idea man.

So what’s the menu for this week’s idea?  Pizza.  Ok, I hear the moans from the moms coming through computer screen now.  And maybe I feel a few fist bumps through the computer screens for dad.  But you haven’t had this pizza.  This pizza is Chicago style deep dish pan pizza.  And where is this pizza at?  It’s in the city of Costa Mesa on Harbor Blvd. called Rances.

My Limited Pizza Experience

To give you the setup you have to understand my experience with pizza.  Out here in California, you have the crappy pizza places that serve generic pizza and crust.  If you are being extra healthy then someone will suggest that you get the thin crust pizza, which is the equivalent of pizza toppings on a cracker.  Also, competing in this new marketplace are all of the make your own pizza places such as Pieology, Rev Pizza, and the Blaze.  At those places, the deal is all about the kinds of toppings you can put on your pizza and not the crust, unless you are gluten sensitive, and then they do carry that option.

But my first experience with Chicago style pan pizza came when I attended UC Berkeley.  At Berkeley, there were a myriad of options available, and as the typical college student, you were looking for whatever was the most convenient and the most available.  You could get pizza selections from Blondie’s pizza, or another variant across the street.  Most of those places closed at around 1:30 in the morning so they were convenient.  I didn’t need to worry about another place.  Despite my being content with the selection of pizzas that were available, I had college roommates who kept insisting that I needed to try Zachary’s pizza.

I resisted for several months as it was a long walk down College Ave., and we hadn’t been given bus passes yet.  But after a few months, some of my dorm mates prevailed upon me to go.  One person had a car in the neighborhood, which was a rarity.  So we packed into the vehicle and took off down College Ave. to our destination.  Little did I know what I was going to find there.

Zachary’s Here I Come

We pulled up to the place after circling around to find a good place to park.  (You think parking in L.A. is bad?  You are living in a dream by comparison.)  We got out of the car and were informed that it was going to take 45 minutes to get seated.  45 MINUTES!?!?  Were they crazy???  Who in their right mind was going to wait 45 minutes to be seated at a pizza parlor?  I don’t know about your experience, but everywhere I went for pizza it was pretty much open seating.  It wasn’t only that you didn’t have to wait.  They let you sit wherever you wanted.  I had a million things running through my mind at that moment, including getting a beer at Ye Old’ Ship.  But sitting 45 minutes for anything, unless it came down from heaven on a platter, was not one of them.

We sat around talking about what we were going to do.  They said we could order our pizza and it would be ready about the time our table was ready.  Maybe I had lived in America too long.  I wanted things, and I wanted them right away.  Speed of service is as important to me as the quality of service and customer care.  But after months and months of prodding, I wasn’t going to back out now.  So we ordered a simple Pepperoni Pizza.  Now at Zachary’s, if any of you have been there, there are a ton of different toppings to choose from.  So for those vegetarian lover’s out there, do not be alarmed.  I am just not among your ranks.  I do not know many starving male college students who are for that matter.  (Dorm food was scary.  Some people speak about a freshman 15.  I think I lost 15 pounds those first few months from lack of nutrition.)

Chicago Style Pan Pizza is Pizza Pie

I was disabused of that “simple” term the moment we finally sat down and they started serving out a slice of pizza.  I don’t know many of you who have had “supposed” deep dish pizzas at places like BJ’s.   That’s a jumbled mess of I don’t know what to call it.  So what do I call Zachary’s? What I will say is that the first time I finally convinced my ex to go to Zachary’s she commented: “I never knew what they meant by a pizza pie before until this very moment.  I will never look at another pizza the same way again.”

What is on this pizza?  Pixiedust?  Magic? Some wonder drug (the coca cola of pizzas)?  All I can say is that the pizza is delicate and amazing with a crust that is firm and tasty (without feeling like you are eating cardboard). It contained layer upon layer of cheese with pepperoni tucked in the middle of it.  And rich, juicy, diced tomatoes were sumptuous as if they had been picked and diced right out of someone’s backyard.  The crust is pressed against the side of the pan so it has this pie like design and the cheese, pepperoni and tomato go all the way up to the top of the crust on all sides. Pizza Pie accurately describes what they handed to us.  Now, this wouldn’t be very good if the ingredients were not also amazing, but they were.  Everything was fresh and the service was wonderful.  45 minutes?  We would have waited for hours to get a pizza like this.  When we were finished we didn’t know what we would do for an encore.

So there we stood, stuffed like you cannot imagine on barely a slice or two of pizza, wondering what the heck had just happened.  Why had we waited months to go out to this place?  How come most of us had only vaguely heard of Chicago style pan pizza before?  We had all had New York thin crust pizza that you had to roll just to prevent it from going all over the place.  But this was exquisite.  Why were there no pizza places like this in Southern California, as many of us had come from there?  We all said we should start a business down there like that and that it would make a ton of money.  But no one ever did anything.

Back in Health Conscious Southern California

When I graduated from Berkeley and moved back down to Southern California, I knew I would never look at pizza the same way.  Sure, I would try the new pizza place that would come around every now and then.  And yes I was excited to try the cracker pizza with the myriad of toppings at places like the Blaze.  (I actually love the fact that they have a ton of toppings at choose your own pizza places.)  But I was never going to see a place like this in a “health conscious” place like southern California again.  And all I could do was sigh.

One day, while coming back from dropping my daughter off at school I saw a new restaurant on the side of the road.  It was tucked in the shopping center, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a huge place, but decently sized.  I read the sign and it said Rances, Chicago style pan pizza.  My jaw dropped.  I was at once nervous and hopeful, and at the same time, I was sure that they would screw it up just like other local placed who claimed to serve pan pizza.  I didn’t go right away, convincing myself that it couldn’t possibly be as good as Zachary’s.  I waited . . . for months.  But staring at the sign, day after day, knowing it was there, I finally summoned the courage to go in and order a pizza.

Rances at Last

My ex had finally had Zachary’s after years of prodding so when we finally convinced ourselves to go up to the door of the Rances, we were very unsure of what we were going to be getting.  It was a relatively empty afternoon and a line of tables was in the place that were mostly unfilled as we stood there.

A girl behind the counter asked, “Would you like to dine in or take out?”

“Dine In,” my ex and I replied as our daughter stood by our side.

“Take a seat over there but it’s going to take about 45 minutes for your pizza to be ready.  You might want to order and come back in a bit.”

My ex and I looked at each other and smiled.  It was the first sign that maybe, just maybe, this might be good pizza. We ordered a pizza and then went to Target, one of my daughter’s favorite stores to shop, while we waited for the pizza to be ready.  A little window shopping and a half hour later we came back to be seated and get drinks as we waited for the pizza to come.  In a little under 15 minutes, they came back with our order ready.

We could see the steam from the diced tomatoes and oozing melted cheese as the magnificent smell wafted towards us. It looked very much like Zachary’s pizza, but the key was the taste. One cautious bite in my mouth later, and I knew any fears were far removed from me.  Not only did this have the same spectacular flavor, but the crust was sturdy and yet light, almost like a fluffy pastry.  It was an explosion of flavor in the mouth.  We knew we had found the Southern California equivalent to Zachary’s.  (I can argue whether Zachary’s or Rances is better another time.)

A Word of Caution for Those Nervous About Health

Rances is for when you want PIZZA, not some faux excuse for flat bread and pepperoni.  I’m sure that you can have Stauffer’s flatbread pizza at home every night of the week.  But when you want the sense that you have had something original, and amazing, then Rances blows away the pizza competition.

Rances, however, is not health food.  Yes, there is a ton of cheese and tomatoes and bread with every slice of pizza.  I would not try to diet on it like that one unnamed spokesman did at Subway.  (Yes, I know his name.  But no, he doesn’t deserve any attention.)  In fact, if you can get more than a slice in your mouth for the meal I would be surprised.  More than two slices and I might faint from shock.  One slice is a lot of food and they often have a lunch special with a slice and a salad.  It makes a great lunchtime meal.  Also, the cholesterol from daily usage would most certainly put you in a grave.

Chicago style pan pizza is not fast food either.  I would recommend calling and ordering in advance of your arrival if you can decide on what you want ahead of time.  Other than that, enjoy the multi-screened ambiance of the venue while you wait for the pizza magic to arrive.  There are a few appetizers or a good salad that you might split before the pizza comes.  It’s also a great time to talk with your little one if you are a dad on a midweek date.

Consider Rances when you get that pizza craving.  It’s not something you do every day. But for a once in a while treat of amazing pizza that melts in your mouth and makes your taste bud’s sing, no one does it better in Southern California than Rances’ Pizza, on the corner of Baker and Harbor in Costa Mesa.

For those of you who disagree, great, I would love to know about more amazing pizza places in the southern California area.  Like I said, I’m all about variety so drop me a message at the bottom.  (Even if they are out of town joints, I like to know about places I can go to when I travel.)  And don’t limit it to pizza places either.  I’m a man on a mission when it comes to trying unique, good food and sharing that experience with my daughter.  And until next time . . . this is me signing off.

David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life

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