Bad Roman, the latest restaurant from the Quality Branded group, is three flights up the Shops at Columbus Circle, above the Whole Foods and past the Paper Source, in an upscale Manhattan mall. It remains impossible to get into. And it might be the restaurant that most exemplifies the current maximalism trend popping up in the restaurant world, a marked penchant for the loud and campy and irreverent.
Luke Fortney describes Bad Roman as “a Buca di Beppo version of a fern bar meets White Lotus-level decadence.” Helen Rosner calls the space “a series of Instagram opportunities.” It’s full of orange booths endcapped with statues of greyhounds, a sculpture of a lion draped in neon, glass tiles everywhere, and a whole-ass fountain near the bathroom, which have been endlessly captured on TikToks frantically asking, “Is Bad Roman worth the hype?” It feels like the definition of More.
The menu is just as aggressively whimsical, at least on paper, with roasted garlic babka, caviar gnocchi, and an entire 2-pound lobster on top of Calabrian chile pasta. But nothing has quite captured the public, or my imagination, like the ’roni cups and ranch, a dish that consists of a brood of charred pepperoni served with ranch dipping sauce. That’s it.
The ’roni cups have come from somewhere. The past five years or so have seen the rise of “cup and char” pepperoni — pepperoni that form delicious little grease-holding cups as they are cooked. Though long popular in the Midwest, and at some old-school pizzerias, the topping became associated with a new generation of pizzerias like Paulie Gee and Emmy Squared. The mechanics are simple: The thin slices of pepperoni curl because the interior of it, the part that is in contact with the pizza, is insulated and kept moist by cheese and crust. As they cook more slowly, the lips rise to form a crispy cup, a meaty smile full of golden grease. This style of pepperoni has become a shorthand for high-quality pizza. (Never mind that Pizza Hut offers a ’roni-cupped pizza.) The pepperoni is cupped, ergo the pizza is good.
The idea of making a whole meal out of pepperoni teeters on the line between delightful and stupid, but Bad Roman’s offering seemed unlike most restaurants that are given the TikTok treatment, I felt a call. I arrived sweaty to Bad Roman for lunch, a distinctly un-vibey time, but found it a lively though not entirely full power-lunch spot. I grabbed a high banquet seat by the bar, feeling my hot thighs meld with the synthetic fabric, and was greeted by the loveliest server who did not appear to question why one would want to eat ’roni cups alone on a 90-degree day. I ordered a blood orange soda and a shrimp cocktail for good measure, and waited, feet dangling like a lonely child, for my treat to arrive.
In the 1997 episode of Seinfeld titled “The Muffin Tops,” Elaine has what she thinks is a great idea. As she explains to Mr. Lippman, the tops of the muffins are the best part, so she pops them off from the bottoms and devours just the tops. “That’s a million-dollar idea right there. Just sell the tops,” she says. Mr. Lippman takes her advice, opening Top of the Muffin to You! At first, it’s unsuccessful, but Elaine diagnoses the problem. “You’re making just the muffin tops,” she says. “You gotta make the whole muffin, then you pop the top, toss the stump.” Business takes off, but it comes at a wasteful expense, as Elaine and Mr. Lippman soon find themselves unable to off-load their stump surplus.
It really seems like a good idea for a second, though. We can all agree that the top of the muffin is all most people want, and why eat anything if it’s not the best part? It’s the same logic you had as a kid: fishing out all the marshmallows from a box of Lucky Charms, all the chocolate pieces from the trail mix. It’s what’s behind telling ourselves that no matter the time of day or state of our bank accounts, we deserve a little treat because, hey, being temporarily delighted is the same as self-care.
The ’roni cups and ranch feel like a treat, a lizard-brain pull toward fat and salt. If pepperoni cups are the best part of a pepperoni pizza, then why bother with the pizza at all? It’s muffin top food: all killer, no filler. By the end, you might be wishing for satiation, but didn’t you have fun?
I do love this maximalist moment. Give me color and texture and every influence you’ve ever come across on a plate. Anyone who cites Coco Chanel’s (likely apocryphal) advice — that you should always remove one accessory you’re wearing before leaving the house — assumes one would ever take advice from a Nazi.
What I love most is watching chefs leap farther away from tradition to see what might be waiting for them. In many maximalist restaurants, that comes in the form of the lowbrow made decadent, like corn dogs topped in gold at Eszett, in LA; Champagne dill ranch dip at Champers, in New York; and caviar on the likes of nachos at Panorama, in New York, and on churros at Asador Bastian, in Chicago.
Other times, the experiment is in taking a single ingredient and changing how diners interact with it. Superfrico, in Las Vegas, serves a tableside mozzarella, putting the cheese front and center as it’s stretched and pulled before diners. HaSalon, in New York, served a single noodle that was 12 feet long. Dhamaka, also in New York, currently serves a chapli kebab topped with an egg yolk that is broken tableside, drizzling down to a sizzling plate before your eyes. And the Dive, in Baltimore, has a sandwich in which the primary ingredient is potato chips.
Each of these dishes, as much restaurant food is now, is part joyful expression of creativity and part social media savvy. You don’t prepare mozzarella tableside unless you want someone to post a video of it. And what’s wrong with that? Food is meant to be devoured by the eyes as much as by the mouth. This is, indeed, the entire premise behind Quality Branded’s social media presence. A recent ad for the company said, “We have the meme foods,” while another one for a gargantuan cannoli joked, “Perfect for the internet, apparently.”
These dishes seem too contrived or appear as “Instagram bait” if they are done solely for social media — that is, if they don’t also taste good. The bait needs to lead you to deeper satisfaction. But what’s not satisfying about pepperoni? In some ways, the ’roni cups almost feel too obvious, inevitable. And crucially, their unseriousness is the point. The “apparently” of the branding is a deflection, a sarcastic eye roll to counter anyone who suggests that the execution of the cooking, or even the ambience, isn’t as fun as it looks online. Whatever. It’s just pepperoni, dude. Chill out.
Eating alone should not be embarrassing, but I have perhaps never felt goofier at a restaurant than being presented with a silver platter of nothing but pepperoni, like I was a picky pepperoni-starved little princess. This isn’t Bad Roman’s fault. The dish is clearly marked as a sharing plate, and there’s nothing in the constitution saying lunch can’t be a pile of cured meat and four shrimp. But still, lol.
The pepperoni were bigger than I expected: 10 cups, each about 2 inches wide, curled up at the edges with just the slightest blackened char. They were thinner than the pepperoni cups found on most pizzas, too. I bit in and realized that because of the size, and because of the lack of insulating pizza, the pursuit of a crispy edge had resulted in an overall toughness. Where was the neon orange grease meant to fill these erstwhile cups? Where was the tenderness to counter the crisp? It was garlicky and spicy, as good pepperoni should be, and the inclusion of a fresh basil leaf from the garnish made for a wonderful contrasting bite, but then came the ranch dressing, which in comparison had all the flavor of mayonnaise. I was craving some more tang and herbs to stand up to the salt and meat, but I could barely taste it.
Chewing with effort on another cup, I thought maybe this was a brilliant gesture, all meant to give the customer their own Anton Ego moment, whipped through time to some formative memory of pizza and flavor and experimentation. I was meant to feel the essence of ’za. But when I tried to attach the experience to a memory, all I could conjure was eating Papa John’s for the first time in a college dorm room and thinking it was not as good as a friend had promised it would be.
I gazed upon the expanse of Bad Roman as I guzzled water. The neon and the colors and the big shapes and the chandeliers and the quirky statues and the mirrors and the power clashing are all meant to convince you that maximalism and wild creativity are one and the same. But as the ’roni cups reminded me, that’s not a guarantee. Sometimes the cups are empty. Sometimes there are only gestures at fun, like someone quoting Anchorman instead of telling you a joke. Those gestures are easy to make: Just take a thing people already love — mozzarella, pepperoni, caviar — and give them that in outlandish quantities. But for all the pomp, I was left feeling like what was sold as so much was ultimately not enough.
Maybe there’s a world in which Bad Roman cooks the pepperoni on a pizza to give it the proper shape and, like Elaine and Mr. Lippman, tosses the pizza before bringing the pepperoni to you. But that would create another, absolutely worse problem. Either way, the eye roll, the deflection, the it’s just fun-ness ring hollow, because ultimately it’s clear this was done only for that initial delight of the platter being set down at a table of giggling and cooing guests. This is meant to amuse, not nourish.
Muffin tops don’t exist without the muffin bottoms. The pepperoni doesn’t cup without the pizza holding it down. This isn’t about needing to eat your veggies — cheese pizza and muffin stumps are not nutritional powerhouses, and also who cares? But the “filler” isn’t just something you have to put up with to get the good stuff. It’s what makes the whole experience possible. The thing you love needs context for you to love it.
Nevertheless, when I posted a picture of my lunch to my Instagram stories, a handful of friends commented things like “omg, are those just pepperoni cups??” They sounded excited and bewildered. One just said “legend.” And who could blame them? Arranged on the plate, the ’roni cups were quite beautiful, a fun juxtaposition with the humbleness of the ingredients. From that angle, it looked like a good idea. It looked fun. Don’t worry about it. Don’t you want to treat yourself?
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein