Detroit Pizza Is the Best Pie You've Never Had
And no, we're not talking about Little Caesar's.
All photos by the author.
"Lots of sarcasm, jokes, and weird looks."
Until recently, that's the sort of reaction pizza chef Shawn Randazzo encountered when he mentioned to those outside Michigan that he trades in Detroit-style pizza.
No, Detroit pizza isn't topped with bullets, Randazzo has assured skeptics. That's the variety of joke those of us here dealt with for decades, but, thankfully, Detroit-style pizza—much like the city—is suddenly fashionable, and a pleasant surprise once the obligatory "Detroit-is-a-dump" jokes are done.
The shift is partly due to Randazzo pushing the gospel. He's the founder of the Detroit Style Pizza Company and winner of the 2012 Las Vegas International Pizza Expo, billed as the Super Bowl of pizza contests. He's also a pizza consultant who dedicates his days to introducing the Motor City's slices to the world in an effort to put Detroit-style on the same national level as NYC thin crust and Chicago deep dish.
"Detroit was on a downward spiral for 30 years and I want to put it in a good light, so comments like ['are there bullets on the pizza?'] fuel my fire to educate people. I tell them, 'Take a bite and this will be your favorite style of pizza,'" Randazzo says. "I look at it as one of Detroit's culinary masterpieces, but it has sort of been a secret for 60 years … and now people in different areas of the world are loving it."
Put simply, Detroit-style is a rectangular deep dish prepared with a crunchy, focaccia-like dough and a thick layer of Wisconsin brick cheese spread to the pizza's browned, caramelized, cheese-crusted edges. Sauce always goes on top, and it's divided in block-like slices that are often heavy enough to demand utensils. If Detroit pies have a pizza world cousin, it's the Sicilian deep dish, but the differences are distinct.
And there's evidence that blueprint is well-received outside Michigan. In Brooklyn, Emmy Squared recently established itself as Brooklyn's first Detroit-style pizzeria. Randazzo consulted with the crew at Austin's Via 313, which launched in 2011, now operates four locations, and prepares 2,000 pizzas daily. Toronto's Descendant Detroit Style Pizza enjoys similar success, and Detroit pies are now—or will soon be—rolling out of pizzerias in California, St. Louis, Minnesota, Louisville, West Virginia and Seoul, South Korea.
Locally, it's agreed that Buddy's Pizza invented the style, and the best pizzerias are directly or indirectly linked to its original store. Over the decades, several managers cut their teeth there before striking out on their own, and a simmering rivalry among the brands remains. But only a few survived the split from Buddy's. Those include Loui's in the working-class suburb of Hazel Park, and Cloverleaf on Detroit's east side. That's where Randazzo got his start prior to opening the Detroit Style Pizza Co. (No, Detroit's most well-known pizza exports—Little Caesar's, Jet's, and Domino's—aren't offering what most would consider authentic Detroit-style pizza.)
Each shop will stress there are clear differences even if they fall under the Detroit pizza umbrella, but Buddy's pizza invented the style and the company's vice president, Wesley Pikula, wants you to make no mistake: "'Detroit-style' pizza is actually 'Buddy's-style' pizza," he tells me. Pikula likens it to Pizzeria Uno inventing the Chicago deep dish. It's not recognized as "Pizzeria Uno-style," Pikula says, because "Chicago-style" sounds better.
Regardless, Buddy's cooked the first Detroit-style pie at its McNichols and Conant Roads location, which opened as a speakeasy during Prohibition. By 1946 it evolved into the small, dive-y and charming bar/restaurant that it remains today.
In a very Detroit beginning to a culinary class, Buddy's repurposed square, blue steel utility trays designed for storage at local auto factories into pizza pans, and it worked perfectly. The creases in the pans' folds gather and house the fat and oil from the cheese, then drip flavor into each successive pizza's crust. Pikula says the pans' role can't be overstated.
WATCH: The Pizza Show: Detroit
"Through years of baking—like a metal flat top grill—the seasoned pans will start to impart a certain flavor that's unique to the dough and cheese, and even though pizzas from to two different places might look the same, they don't taste the same," Pikula tells me. "The factory pans sound like folklore, but a lot of it is true. There are subtleties like this, but it's the subtleties that separate one thing from the next, this pizza from that pizza, and there's merit to it."
The dough is pressed to the pans' edges. High hydration levels, saltwater yeast, and secrets in the proofing process lead to Detroit dough's light, crunchy interior. The resulting crust—which measures 1.5 inches at Loui's—is generally described as focaccia-like, but Pikula notes that focaccia includes oil and is slightly chewier than Buddy's Neapolitan deep dish foundation. Above all, the crust is what distinguishes Detroit-style from other deep dishes.
After the dough is pressed, the crust is blanketed with gobs of semi-soft, high-fat Wisconsin brick cheese, not far from a very mild cheddar. For those in regions without access to cheap Wisconsin brick, Randazzo recommends substituting a Monterey Jack.
If the pizza is done right, there's no need to order extra cheese. At Loui's, the cooks lay down well over a pound of brick that's cubed instead of shredded on each large (10x14), though Loui's chef Nykolas Sulkiwyskyj notes no one regularly measures the weight.
"Loui says it looks skimpy if you measure, so we freehand it. So if you have three different guys making it, then there are three different styles to how they do it, but it all tastes good."
Toppings and sauce always goes on top of the pie, which prevents the dough from turning soggy and keeps the toppings from burning in the 700-degree oven.
Loui's sits on Dequindre Road, just up the street from Buddy's original location (locals call the stretch between McNichols and Nine Mile Road Detroit's "pizza corridor") and is now in its fourth decade operating the perfect picture of a Midwestern family Italian eatery. While Buddy's now has 11 locations, and Randazzo and Cloverleaf run multiple stores, Loui's resists the temptation to expand locally, and its management doubts that Detroit style would be as good in other parts of the country.
"Water has something to do with it—altitude, humidity. Everything makes a difference. It's an art and, just like you have to know how to work with paints, oils … you have to know how to do the same with pizza," Sulkiwyskyj tells me. "Everyone is trying to imitate it, but Loui is always confident that there will be something similar, but it won't be the same."
It's possibly that type of sentiment that contained the Detroit pizza recipe within the Great Lakes for 70 years. Most local pizza makers seem more concerned about making good pies than making a name. But that's slowly changing as the style gets more attention, and part of Randazzo's mission is to ensure that those who start preparing Detroit dough do it authentically. Aside from the three-day Detroit pizza workshops—for which he charges $3,400 and will travel to a client's store to set up in their environment—he's beginning to package and sell the dough mix.
"I want to create opportunities for other people and ultimately get this awesome secret out of the bag," he says.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.