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Ranch on the rise, but French dressing still reigns supreme at Coast pizza joints

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JUSTIN MITCHELL/SUN HERALD 
 Tony's Brick Oven Pizzeria in downtown Gulfport said French dressing is the restaurant's most-popular pizza dipping sauce.
JUSTIN MITCHELL/SUN HERALD Tony's Brick Oven Pizzeria in downtown Gulfport said French dressing is the restaurant's most-popular pizza dipping sauce.

Certain topics should not be discussed by friends over dinner: politics, religion -- and pizza dressing.

"Give me Catalina or give me death," said Jessica Mitchell of Diamondhead.

Mitchell loves the tangy Kraft French salad dressing and will bring it to a pizza place if she knows she won't find it on the menu. "My significant other keeps track and makes sure we always have it in our house," she said.

Mitchell said she loves pizza. Her friends would say she likes Italian pies more than most people.

She eats only cheese pizza or ham with pineapple, and nothing else. Her restaurants of choice are Uncle Joe's Pizza and Wings in Diamondhead and Mellow Mushroom. "I will not touch my pizza unless I have Catalina," she said. "I know what I want when it comes to pizza and I will not waver."

Mississippi roots

The tradition of eating traditional creamy French dressing on pizza began with Biloxi High students who ate at Hugo's pizza parlor in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

"Kids do weird things," said longtime Hugo's manager Hilda Ainsworth in 2009. The students, who would come in after school for a slice, would put the dressing -- called "liquid cheese" by locals -- on their pizzas.

Hugo J. Rung Sr., a New York native stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, opened Hugo's in 1951. It closed for good in 2003.

French fad lives on

But the tradition of "liquid cheese" on pizza has carried on across the Coast.

Some call it French dressing and others call it Catalina, but Tony's Brick Oven Pizza owner Tony Swigris said it's the most popular pizza dressing ordered at his downtown Gulfport restaurant.

"With pizza, it's a Gulf Coast tradition," he said.

When Tony's opened its doors, Swigris said he didn't carry the dressing, but the demand for it was so great he developed a recipe and started making it from scratch after two months.

"We use olive oil, vinegar, tomato sauce and spices," he said.

Brooklyn Pizzeria has locations in Gulfport and Bay St. Louis, and Lee Stahl said the French dressing, which is Ventura brand, is the most popular dipping sauce in the house.

The Gulfport Brooklyn's serves about 20 to 30 pizzas by the slice at lunch each day, Stahl said.

Chain reaction

Colin Krieger worked as a manager at Papa John's stores in D'Iberville, Ocean Springs and Biloxi in 2004 and said the chain had to get a special corporate exemption to sell Catalina dressing to customers.

"Every time an inspector came down, they would marvel at why the heck we were selling it," Krieger said.

Krieger, who now sells real estate in Columbus, lives two hours north of the Coast and said people in his community don't eat the dressing with their pies.

"That sweet sauce is unique to the Coast. 'Coast-alina' is what I called it," he said.

Ranch on the rise

Though French dressing is the Coast staple, Swigris and Stahl both agreed ranch dressing is a close runner-up dip for pizzas.

Bootlegger's Pizza in Biloxi likely gives out more ranch than French dressing, said employee William Neely.

Visitors are often confused when servers ask if they want to try to French dressing with pizza, Swigris said.

"I would say that the majority who use French are locals," he said. " A lot of our military and out-of-town customers look at me crazy when I ask if they need any dressing to go with their pizza."

Some Coast residents, though, say they don't need any extra sauces or dips on their beloved pizza.

"I could eat pizza for every meal," said Blaine Strickland of Ocean Springs. "Good pizza doesn't need a dip. (But) if I had to choose, it would be French."

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