When I asked my mother-in-law for her favorite Ronnally’s story, she took me back to a lunch date in 1980. She recalled the man who’d eventually become her husband, whisking her away from the office for one magical hour of Miller Lite and red, zesty sauce.
“I don’t remember much about my surroundings, because I was too focused on my date!” she said. “It was the best pizza around, and of course the pitcher of beer was good, too! I’m not 100-percent sure about the Miller Lite pitcher. It might have been that he was just so darn intoxicating!”
Ronnally’s Pizza: it’s the first thing out of any good Woodburian’s mouth when quizzed about the best local food. It’s the city’s oldest restaurant, too, at 44 years old. As Bob Shaw explained in this piece for the Pioneer Press, Ronnally’s used to be a chain throughout the Twin Cities. Locations died one by one, and now the Woodbury location is the only one left. It might have gone the way of Il Foro, too, had Diana Ehlenz not made the world’s most fortuitous dry cleaning run back in May 2015 (per Woodbury Bulletin).
Diana and her husband, Greg Ehlenz, purchased Ronnally’s later that year. The Ehlenzes are trying to piece together Ronnally’s history, says the Pioneer Press piece, a task now more difficult with the passing of the chain’s founder last year. While its past may never be fully known, any doubts about the restaurant’s future can be put to rest simply by watching Diana at work.
It’s not hard to do. On every visit I’ve made since moving back, I’ve seen her there. During one visit, she connected a customer and a delivery driver by talking to them both over two separate phone lines. She did this while training a new hire, and still greeted customers within two seconds of entry into Ronnally’s. During another visit, she rapid-fired goodbyes at employees as she hustled out at the end of a shift. She passed me on her way out, but spun back so she could toss me a quick thank-you for stopping.
My wife looked back the first time we visited when I asked her for a story. It had to have been six or seven years ago and … wait, I haven’t mentioned yet that Ronnally’s is BYOB, have I?
“Neither of us had ever heard of anything like that,” she said, “and I’m pretty sure you raced across the parking lot to the MGM Liquors to get a six pack of beer while I waited at the table.”
Ronnally’s is definitely Woodbury’s only BYOB restaurant, and I’m unaware of any non-taprooms in the Twin Cities with that license. It’s an ancient one, grandfathered to Ronnally’s over the years and inherited by the Ehlenzes. For $3, they’ll even chill your drinks and give you cold glasses.
There’s a five-person circular table we always crowd with friends. We stack that surface with large pizzas, piles of garlic bread, stray plates, pasta, six-packs and bombers. Chatter and cheese stretch out in every direction. If you want to grab anything that isn’t immediately in front of you, you have to either ask for it or stand up to get it. Sometimes, there’s room for water and silverware on the table. Napkins, never. We wipe our faces clean with our hands, then our hands bring new messes up to our faces.
When my wife and I are alone, we sit in the booths. My wife recalled the time I brought Big Wood Brewing’s marvelous Morning Wood coffee stout to Ronnally’s, and read the box aloud like I was narrating a smut novel. That was three or four years ago. Last year, we celebrated her Master’s degrees at Ronnally’s. I bothered her to let me photograph her in her St. Scholastica hoodie, the one with “MBA/MAM” printed on the sleeve, so I could boast on her behalf to the Internet.
I use the BYOB license to attract my friends to Ronnally’s when we’re discussing nights out. It’s never what we’re talking about when we leave.
I’ve got quite a list of friends and family I’ve lured to Ronnally’s. I brought my friend Hornish most recently, about a month ago. Hornish earned his Juris Doctorate a year ago, and works for a law firm in the Twin Cities now. He explained to me that, when he’s getting full, he judges his ambition to finish a meal by how good he thinks the leftovers will be later on. He ordered a full-sized spaghetti with Ronnally’s alfredo sauce that day.
He started getting full halfway through, but was completely lost for a solution. All he could say was, “I never want this to end.”
You probably haven’t had an alfredo sauce like the one they make at Ronnally’s. It’s creamy, sharp, and bites like the cheese on a fresh pizza slice. It’s in their signature Ronnally’s Mac and Cheese, which an old publisher told me six years ago was the best mac and cheese he’d had in his life. Now, Hornish was saying that same thing about the alfredo sauce to our waitress. I might have even been the best pasta he’s ever had, period, he said.
The Ehlenzes inherited Ronnally’s top-secret recipes when they purchased the business, and made no modifications. As Diana is quoted in the Bulletin piece: “Why ruin a good thing? It’s been here so long, and people love it as it is.” The pasta still comes to you under a thick blanket of cheese, lightly browned, the edges of which will probably still be bubbling when it arrives at your table. A half-sized order is still one hell of a meal; a full-sized order is two, maybe three.
With its red sauce, Ronnally’s pizzas are like the first pizzas you ever fell in love with. The crust is light and crispy; the sauce, thick and robust; and the cheese is massive. It could be stretched out and put down as a table cover, no doubt. One slice could probably fill you, but you’ll have five or six.
Ronnally’s offers a white chicken pizza, made with their alfredo sauce. The English language doesn’t have a word for that pizza yet. All I can say: if they suggest adding bacon bits, for the love of the flying spaghetti monster, do it!
They don’t venture too far beyond pizza and pasta. They serve sandwiches, headlined by a classic hot dago (or the deluxe, with mushrooms and extra sauce), and a meatball sandwich; garlic bread, garlic cheese bread, and garlic cheese bread with pepperoni. Desserts include a dessert pizza with a cinnamon streusel crumb topping, drizzled with icing. You can get this plain, or with warm cinnamon apples for $2 more. You can find Ronnally’s on the website here. If you want a lightly-cheese personal pizza, I recommend the cheesy garlic bread. I’m not joking.
Come here and you’ll remember the visit. Even after 100 more visits, even after 30 years pass, you’ll remember. Thanks goodness Diana Ehlenz remembered to pick up her dry-cleaning that day.
RELATED: I first wrote about Ronnally’s back in 2013. If you want to read about some of my other favorites in Woodbury, head over to my Woodbury Week section and check them out!