The Big Ragu: Review
Words: Lauren Cochran
East of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, on a remarkably unnoteworthy stretch of Grand Street, there’s a fresh face gracing the neighborhood. Fresh in concept, that is.
The Big Ragu opened at 679 Grand Street last week in highly anticipated fashion. Cousins Francis Garcia and Sal Basille are the pizzaiolos behind the beloved Artichoke Basille chain, which opened its first doors in 2008 on 14th Street in Manhattan. With deep roots in the food industry going back to a shared childhood experience working for their family’s restaurant on Staten Island, the duo have since opened a dozen pizzerias under the Artichoke banner in New York City and beyond, counting Miami, FL and Berkley, CA among their many homes.
Having amassed what is arguably an unparalleled knowledge when it comes to successful restaurant operation in an unforgiving city like New York, not to mention a highly nuanced appreciation for the variations in pizza formulas across Italy’s micro-cuisines, Francis and Sal are masters in execution.
As you enter The Big Ragu from Grand Street and find yourself standing amidst plymold seating booths, you may expect to hear that characteristic pizzeria chime as the doors close behind you. Very quickly, though, you are pulled toward the imposing brick oven on the far wall of the modest rectangular room, and you realize you are in for a different kind of pizzeria encounter.
The menu is straightforward: there is ‘regular’ pizza, which is made in that quintessential, foldable, street-slice style… chewy but not doughy, with a crispy under-crust that allows for the layering of ample red sauce, cheese and a bevy of toppings. Under the glass display, diners are invited to peruse peppers, mushrooms, garlic and a rotation of changing seasonal ingredients that can be added to any order upon request.
There are sauce choices, too. Francis and Sal have appropriated Marcella Hazan’s recipe for a sweet sauce made by simmering tomatoes slowly with a whole onion and plenty of butter. The outcome is a particularly velvety, rich rendition on the classic which can be ordered on the side and added in doses large or small to each bite.
Naturally, there are garlic knots, for those requiring a mid-meal palate cleanse. Made with the same perfected dough, they are all the right proportions of soft and crusty, pungent and salty.
The Big Ragu slice, though, is what you are there to experience. And no modifications are required or even recommended for this piece of pillowy pizza extravagance. The style of the Big Ragu is an example of the traditional pizzas made in Milan and, more recently, Detroit. The raw dough is laid in the bottom of a large, shallow dish and then smothered with the house tomato sauce. This combination is then cooked in the large brick oven at temperatures reaching 800 degrees, allowing the dough to firm, but also absorb the aromas and juices of the sauce – ultimately yielding an absolutely otherworldly souffle-like texture. Polly-O cheese (yes, of string cheese fame) is then layered thinly atop the sauce and the whole thing is returned briefly to the oven once more.
When ordered by the slice, it will be handed over already cut into perfect cube-shaped bites, allowing for immediate and rapid consumption while hot.
If there is any physical possibility of ending the meal with a touch of sweet, the cannolis, while not mind-bending in the same way as the Big Ragu pie, are satisfying.
When dining in, water and sodas by the can are the available options. If you’re looking to enjoy an adult beverage, Blue Angel Wines across Grand Street will sell you a bottle, uncork it and send you off with a couple of plastic cups. It’s just in-house for now, but in the coming weeks, The Big Ragu team have plans to take on board Postmates, Uber Eats and handful of other delivery partners.
For those still unconvinced, head to the Cooking Channel and watch Francis and Sal star in their very own series, Pizza Masters, where the cousins document their journeys to cities around the U.S., seeking to taste the creations of fellow world-class pizzaiolos.
All said, this newcomer to a busy East Williamsburg thoroughfare is making a bigger splash than its unassuming storefront might suggest to an ignorant passerby. But make no mistake, while The Big Ragu is all parts pizza joint, zero parts frill, the execution and quality is well worth the trip.
The Big Ragu, 679 Grand Street, NY 11211
JONY was invited to review The Big Ragu on a complimentary basis. We retain full editorial control.