Have you ever submerged a perfect piece of New York pizza into a puddle of ranch dressing? The kind of slice with a little char on the bottom, that folds but doesn’t break, wears both cheese and tomato sauce (but not too much of either), and was probably reheated in an electric oven before being served on a paper plate with a piece of parchment paper to stop the flow of grease? Well, neither have I.
Pizza fit for ranch is a specific breed: It’s thick, cheesy, often found in California, and usually coated in pepperoni, with pools of grease that beg for the acid hit of buttermilk and preservatives. The thin slices from L’Industrie in Williamsburg or Scarr’s on the Lower East Side would never do. Neither would the sourdough pies at Ops in Bushwick or Lucali in Park Slope. But if not them, then who?
The answer eluded me for years.
The combination of ranch and pizza is said to have been popularized by Domino’s Pizza in 1994, when the chain started including sides of the dressing with its wings and customers got ranch-curious. In the Midwest, where the condiment’s most outspoken defenders live, ranch dipping dates back much further, and in the Southwest, it’s common for french fries, breadsticks, and fried pickles to come with a side of the good stuff.
Ranch has been sitting pretty ever since 1992, when the condiment overtook Italian as the country’s favorite dressing — seemingly everywhere except for New York. I asked Marc Iacono, the legendary pizzaiolo behind Lucali, if he had ever dipped his pizza in ranch. He said he hadn’t, but admitted to dusting his dollar slices with garlic powder and oregano. Iacono’s opinion — that “good pizza doesn’t need toppings” — seems to be the most popular one here. Thankfully, it hasn’t stopped other pizza makers from trying.
When Emily Hyland opened the first location of Emily in 2014, her Clinton Hill restaurant served a pie drizzled with ranch dressing. Between that and the restaurant’s focus on Detroit-style pies, she was worried about getting run out of town. “We as New Yorkers can dig in our heels,” she says. “I think it speaks more to group behavior than whether ranch is delicious on pizza or not — which, factually, it is.”
A decade later, its cilantro-mint ranch has persisted despite the odds: It’s drizzled on one of Emily’s vodka-sauce pies in Brooklyn and available as a side for crust dunking at Emmy Squared, its offshoot pizza chain.
Not much has changed in the years since, although a handful of food writers have been brave enough to speak up. In 2016, Grub Street made the case that we were on the cusp of a ranch renaissance as chefs across the country reconsidered the maligned condiment. If it ever materialized, it wasn’t enough to satisfy a writer at Bedford and Bowery, who argued a few years later that New York still didn’t have enough ranch.
I started to suspect something might be moving in the ranch space earlier this year, after a publicist shared a menu for a new Italian restaurant in Columbus Circle called Bad Roman. The restaurant, which Eater gave the unusual honor of being the “most unhinged” Italian spot of the year, serves just three appetizers. One of them is a plate of pepperoni cups with a side of ranch dressing. I had questions.
“Who doesn’t like to pick pepperoni off a cheese pizza?” says Michael Stillman, founder of Quality Branded, the group behind Bad Roman, Don Angie, Zou Zou’s, and other popular Manhattan restaurants. Sure, but what about the ranch? Stillman says his partner, the chef Craig Koketsu, grew up in San Jose, California, where public opinion about ranch is more favorable.
“He loves ranch,” Stillman says. “He’s always working ranch into things.” It wasn’t ranch on pizza, strictly speaking, but it was something.
It was around this time that it dawned on me that in California, most of the reason we dipped our pizza in ranch as kids was that thick, floppy slices were easier to stomach that way. (I hear the situation has gotten better.) I considered that the pizza in New York, on average, might just be too good for this to become a ranch kind of town. And then, I found the smoking gun I needed.
I was sitting in the dining room of Velma, an Italian restaurant that opened in Ridgewood last month, when I spotted ranch on the menu as a dipping sauce option for its chicken nuggets. The dressing was only a dollar, and on a whim, I ordered one with our vodka pie. When a plastic cup of Ken’s Steak House ranch hit the table a few minutes later, all I could do was stare. This was the closest I’d been in years.
It took exactly one bite to know: This was ranch pizza. The pies were fine by New York standards — impossible to pick up without cheese oozing everywhere due to too much sauce and heavy-handed toppings — but perfect according to the laws of ranch dressing. The crust was thicker than usual, perfect for dipping and absent of those beautiful charred bubbles that distract from the taste of processed buttermilk.
As I triggered my lactose intolerance on multiple levels, I was reminded of the sports bars we descended on after little league games growing up, where playing Metal Slug 3 — not eating pizza — was the main event. Velma felt similar, in a way. The restaurant, which sells bottles of Smirnoff Ice and has what appears to be a Tommy Gun mounted above its kitchen, seems to be saying, “New York, it’s not that deep.”
This city could debate the fine points of what makes for a perfect pizza until the end of time. If we have to wait it out, might as well sit back with a side cup.