File this one under: It’s about damn time. Real Chicago-style pizza has landed in Long Beach. And, better yet, it’s not just any Chicago-style pizza, but Rance’s Chicago Pizza, the four-year-old Costa Mesa home of loaded knife-and-fork pies that’s won everything from Golden Foodie awards to homesick acclaim from Windy City expats.
The second location for the OC-born project opened in the former BJs on Second Street in December. Already, it’s convincing the buzzy Belmont Shore crowd to relax at communal tables and sip on craft beers while their pizzas take the requisite 45 minutes to cook.
As the story goes, Mission Viejo native Rance Ruiz first fell in love with Chicago pizza while visiting his sister in college. He discovered the city’s three distinctive styles — pan, stuffed and thin-crust tavern — and according to his best friend, co-owner Aaron Tofani, Ruiz became obsessed.
“Rance is more obsessed with Chicago pizza than anyone I know is obsessed about anything,” Tofani says. “He knew that this was what he wanted to do with his life — bring this food to SoCal and do his best to keep it authentic.”
For nearly a decade, Ruiz visited Chicago, ate at his favorite pizza spots and, once home, tinkered with sauce and dough recipes inspired by the trip. The resulting pan, stuffed and tavern-styles — each layered with gooey Midwest cheese — are the lifeblood of Long Beach’s Rance’s. Just like in Costa Mesa, there isn’t much else on the menu besides them (though the chunky artichoke dip deserves a serious shoutout).
The pan pizza screams Lou Malnati’s with a greasy, buttery crust (think: stale croissant) with a waterfall of caramelized cheese around the top that’s somehow still strong enough to support multiple inches of cheese, meat and veggies.
The “stuffed” doesn’t refer to the crust as you might imagine, but instead for the practice (made famous at places like Giordano’s) of putting down a thin layer of dough on top of a regular deep dish pizza, then even more ingredients and cheese on top.
Tavern is the most recognizable to the West Coast of anything in the room, with a rolled-out thin crust — still oily, crunchy and teeth-sinking good — with bubbly white cheese blanketed on top of all the toppings. Still, Rance’s cuts it in squares, not triangles, just like in Chicago.
No matter which one you get, each slice sits down on you like a piece of lasagna. A small 9-inch pizza for lunch can easily make two people think they don’t need another meal all day. “Eating here is definitely a team sport. It’s a community event,” Tofani says.
At Long Beach, the foot traffic from their more accessible (read: not in a strip mall) storefront inspired Ruiz and Tofani to start offering their pizza by the slice — a first for Rance’s and a hard find in Chicago. The expansion to a second location is also inspiring Ruiz to develop a special wing sauce, which will be added to the menu soon.
For now, the only thing stopping Rance’s from Long Beach pizza domination might be the wait, which, while traditional, isn’t something people around here are accustomed to yet. Some have already gotten in the habit of calling before to give the kitchen a head start on their dine-in order while others opt for the take-and-bake option, which pre-cooks the pizza for you so you only have to give it 15 minutes in your home oven. But, increasingly, customers are content just sitting in the cavernous Belmont Shore space, drinking a Founders All Day IPA and being patient enough to know that food this good takes time.
“It fits with the slower pace of life in California,” Tofani says. “Don’t just get your food and scarf it down. Get some friends, come in and hang out, drink a beer and enjoy it.”
Rance’s Chicago Pizza, 5258 E Second St. Long Beach; (562) 786-5566; rancespizza.com
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.