When you ask someone to identify which city best dominates pizzadom across the country, the depressingly common answer is New York City.
This makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons – NYC is the biggest city in the country and the New York slice is delicious and extremely adaptable to film and television.
I mean, could you imagine the ninja turtles lugging around a slice of deep-dish pizza on a skateboard, or Walter White managing to toss anything other than the perfectly composed and floppy NYC style pie on his roof without drenching himself in grease and marinara sauce?
However, despite its iconic status in the foodie realm and in pop culture, there exists a more worthy answer in America’s heartland: Detroit.
Today, there is compelling data to support that Detroit – former auto industry foothold and Eminem spawning point – should be seen as the de-facto pizza capital of the United States.
An investigation of cuisine preferences throughout the U.S. using Google News Lab, discovered that Detroiters frequent pizzerias more than anyone else in the United States.
SmartAsset.com, a website which primarily offers financial data analysis and consultation on home rentals and insurance, determined Detroit was the best pizza city in the U.S in 2017, being evaluated primarily on metrics such as their incredibly high number of pizzerias per-capita and their impressive average Yelp scores.
What makes Detroit so crazy about pizza? It could very well be that it’s because they’ve engineered a style of pizza so effortlessly delicious and accessible that eating anything else would seem pointless.
The Detroit-style pizza can be seen rapidly gaining ground throughout the U.S., and even internationally, while achieving the respect that it so rightly deserved.
What Is Detroit-Style Pizza?
Detroit-style pizza, at its core, is an offshoot of the Sicilian pizza, as is essentially every type of square cut, thick crust pizza served in the U.S. This is a rectangular pan pizza which emphasizes a crunchy, fried bottom layer to its crust and blackened cheese pluming off its edges.
Eye-grabbing features of a Detroit-style pizza include an incredibly crispy, cheese-covered crust that is often best enjoyed near burnt according to native Detroiters, and sauce on top of the cheese, ladled across the pie vertically in long, blotchy streaks.
Traditionally, pepperonis are the toppings of choice and, unlike the large, flat circular ones you’re used to seeing on lesser pizzas, these are smaller in diameter, notably thicker, and form into cups as they cook, retaining all the sumptuous pools of grease that join the party during the baking process.
The History Of Detroit-Style Pizza
The Detroit-style pizza traces its roots back to mid-19th century Italy in the city of Palermo, Sicily. Originally known as sfincione which apparently translates to “thick sponge,” this ancient treat did not quite resemble a pizza as we know it today.
While it featured a rectangular shape inspired by and reminiscent of focaccia, as well as a red tomato-based sauce, it was notably absent of cheese. This would change in the early 20th century with the mass migration of Italians to New York City, where they brought with them the food traditions of old and reconstituted the sfincione into what is now referred to as the Sicilian pizza.
The first Detroit-style pizza would be served in 1946 at Buddy’s in Detroit, MI, expanding upon the innovations of the Sicilian pizza in New York and creating an exciting new variation.
The pizza would go on to become a cultural identifier for Detroit and Michigan at large, and as you will see examples of later in this article, would seep into the national consciousness and become an emerging food staple across all regions of the United States.
What Makes Detroit-Style Pizza Different From Other Pizzas?
If you were to describe pizza to someone who has never heard of it before you’d likely describe a traditional round, thin crust pizza, with strings of melty cheese coming off the foldable slice as you remove it from the pan.
Detroit-style pizza eschews these conventions entirely, featuring a rectangular shape and a crust so thick you wouldn’t dare attempt to fold it. But other pan pizzas, like the Sicilian pizza which inspired it, share these same qualities, so what makes the Detroit-style so unique?
For one, Detroit-style pizzas have their cheese spread everywhere on top. The effect is to create a crispy, burnt layer of cheese on the edges of the pizza, as well as to add more fat drippings to coalesce onto sides and bottom of the crust in order to better fry it while it cooks.
The crust itself is also much airier in texture than a Sicilian crust and closely resembles focaccia, which allows for a deceptively light, fluffy chew to compliment the golden, crispy layer on the underside of the crust.
To top things off (literally), Detroit-style pizzas traditionally ladle their sauce over the top of their cheese, not unlike Chicago deep-dish pizzas (though nowhere near as much sauce is used).
The aesthetic of the streaks of marinara sauce on top of the cheese contrasted with the burnt cheese edges is a significant part of Detroit-style pizzas developing presence in the social media realm.
What Are Some Well-Known Detroit-Style Pizza Restaurants?
As explained previously, Detroit-style pies are quickly on the move, spreading rapidly throughout the Midwest, to the east, to the west, and to cowboy country.
While it is important to highlight the original connoisseurs of this iconic pizza as well as the homegrown masters at serving up this indelible delicacy, it is equally important to scour the country at large to achieve a sense of scale at how the Detroit-style is conquering pizzadom like Alexander The Great conquered western civilization. This list is sure to be incomplete, but it will attempt to highlight the essential regions where Detroit-style pizza is exploding in popularity.
1. Buddy’s Pizza – Detroit, MI.
As previously mentioned, this is institution that started it all. Founded by Gus Guerra and originally named “Buddy’s Rendezvous,” one of Detroit’s most revered restaurants started as a simple bar. This type of origin is not unusual for revolutionary pizza joints, as it is understood that most of the early developments in pizza during the first half of the twentieth century were motivated by improving beer sales.
Accordingly, the first Detroit-style pizza was baked in a blue steel pan originally used as a tray to keep various loose auto parts in one place. Some purists have claimed since then no “true” Detroit-style pizza can be baked using anything other than a blue steel pan, though obtaining it from an automotive factory is probably not a requirement for authenticity.
2. Loui’s Pizza – Detroit, MI
Loui’s Pizza is frequently cited as one of the best to serve the Detroit-style pizza (and therefore one of the best pizzerias period), but in conversation they will always come second to Buddy’s, due to its history being inexorably tied to it. Loui’s founder, Louis Tourtrois Sr., was originally the premier chef at Buddy’s pizza before being courted by a competitor, Shield’s (which remains a notable Detroit pizza brand to this day). Eventually, Louis would go on to found the greatest challenge to Buddy’s legacy as the primo pizza champion of the Detroit area in 1977. Since they’ve started, they’ve garnered critical acclaim, appearing on multiple articles and publications and being listed as one the best pizzerias in the nation.
3. Emmy Squared – Brooklyn, NY.
Moving on to the non-Detroit based yet uncompromisingly delicious Detroit-style pizzerias, we have Emmy Squared, a trendy East Coast chain that was originally based in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. They have since expanded to a location in West Village and more impressively to Nashville, TN, boasting national acclaim.
While they’re keen on the fundamentals of the Detroit-style pie – brick cheese layered edge-to-edge, sauce over top, etc. – they are also adept at experimenting with eccentric combos of ingredients in order to appease more modern and adventurous palettes.
Take for instance the “roasted butternut squash, goat cheese, crispy prosciutto, [and] sage” pizza, or the newly IG promoted “Curry Row” pizza featuring an Indian cuisine inspired mishmash of achaar, onions, peppers, cauliflower, and chutney.
This restaurant is also notable for highlighting how Detroit-style pizza has been able to prosper among an intensely competitive pizza market in New York, which is a testament to how ravenous the demand is for this delicious and unique pizza.
4. Via 313 – Austin, TX.
Austin is an incredibly diverse city for foodies, offering Michelin star restaurant served sushi, excellent and award worthy tacos, and arguably some of best barbecue on the planet. Pizza however, seemed to lack a cohesive identity or a sustainable subculture within the city.
This started to change when Via 313 entered as a food truck on Rainey St in 2011, serving up authentic Detroit-style pizza while also offering unique and exciting topping options. Their “Cadillac” pizza features bleu cheese, prosciutto, and a tangy balsamic glaze that acts as an unusual and inspired balance of sweet, acidic, and salty flavor profiles.
They have since expanded to two additional food trucks and three brick and mortar locations in Austin, and they show absolutely no signs of losing steam.
5. Square Pie Guys – San Francisco, CA.
The San-Fran food scene has been stereotyped as overly health conscious and bohemian, so it may seem surprising that Detroit-style pizza would be able to find a home there. Co-founders Marc Schechter and Danny Stoller managed to find an immensely successful niche in the bay area and have helped to usher in a wave of Detroit-style pizza throughout the region.
While these two previously had industry experience developing Neapolitan pizza – the typical bay area pizza mainstay – they recognized the oncoming tide in popularity of Detroit-style pizza and its ingenuity.
Similar to Via 313’s humble beginnings in the food truck space, Square Pie Guys operates through a Pop-Up stand, which goes to show how effective it is to economically serve Detroit-style pizza without needing the space and infrastructure to make more traditional round pies. Others in the region doing the Detroit-style justice are Pizza Squared, also in San Francisco, and Leaning Tower, operating in Oakland.
Why Do People Love Detroit-Style Pizza?
Detroit-style pies aren’t just taking over because they’re delicious. I mean, it’s probably 95% of the reason why they’re taking over but anyone can name a food they love with all their heart that doesn’t get enough appreciation in the industry.
In today’s Social Media emphasized restaurant landscape, consumers demand more than quality home cooked food, they expect to be wowed by all senses. They also want something new, which Detroit style pizza technically isn’t given that it’s been served for over 60 years, but it is becoming a first time experience for many across the United States.
Here are a few of the things these new Detroit-style test pilots are loving about the iconic pie.
1. The Taste
For a Detroit-style pizza, the first element that is likely to jump out at you is the cheese, which is a blend that will vary depending on who’s serving the pie but should include Wisconsin brick cheese by all who aspire to be taken seriously in the Detroit-style pizza game.
It’s a tangy white American cheddar cheese that has a comparatively higher fat content than other white cheddars and is also significantly softer, and thus meltier. High fat content cheese is critical in a Detroit-style pizza in order to create perfectly crisp edges. Low moisture mozzarella may be the emperor who reigns over all other cheeses in the kingdom of pizza, but it is far too lean and mellow to rule over a Detroit-style pizza.
The sauce is also as crucial and underappreciated as it is in every pizza. Given that the sauce is on top, it has to accomplish tasting great and looking great. The sauce also can’t be too loose or also it wouldn’t be able to rest on top and would look like a soupy mess. The sauce will tend to skew closer to a sweeter flavor profile so as to contrast with the acidity of the Wisconsin brick cheese.
2. The Texture
Some might take issue with separating texture from taste, as it’s pretty easy to see where they overlap with each other. But evaluating the crisp, crunch, flop, and fold components of pizza is worthy of its own kind of evaluation outside of the composite flavors of the pizza.
For many, texture is the most important component when it comes to determining truly worthwhile pizza. The crust in a Detroit-style pizza is a delicate balancing act between fluffiness and crispiness, with well-made crust evoking notes of frybread. What surprises a lot of people when they bite into a Detroit-style pizza crust for the first time is its lightness, as its outward appearance would suggest that it’s the type of pizza you’d need to order a to-go box for, yet it is in actuality an enormously accessible (and binge-able) pie.
3. The Presentation
They say that you first eat with your eyes. Assuming that’s true you may well be full before you take your first bite of a Detroit-style pizza.
There are a lot of features that make it stand out – the leopard print layer of melted white cheddar cheese and the golden-brown bubbles on the surface, the streaks of thick marinara over top, and the crackling near black edges of cheese along the edges. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of contrasting textures and colors that can lean towards either a rustic or gourmet aesthetic depending on how bold you are with your toppings.
Whatever you decide, there is no Detroit-style pizza in existence that isn’t Instagram-able.
Detroit has existed as the underappreciated wellspring of influential pizza making for far too long. Detroit gave us Domino’s, one of today’s titans in the chain pizza market, as well as Little Caesar’s, which while nowhere close to as large as Domino’s, is an incredibly large and influential competitor and they serve what remains as the only reliable fast food approximation of Detroit-style pizza on the market.
It’s high time that Detroit enters into the national conversation as the definitive pizza city in America.
Yet, trends in food culture have historically been temperamental (anyone remember Jello Salads?). It is entirely possible that this wave of popularity and success will diminish over time. But if there is, there are few if any signs that show that it will.
Since Shawn Randazzo served up Detroit-style pizza to take home the prize of Pizza Maker of the Year at Las Vegas’ International Pizza Expo in 2012, this pizza has been consistently a commercial and critical behemoth throughout the nation.
Even outside of it, there’s a prominent Detroit-style pizza brick in mortar location in Toronto, Canada of all places! There are some who follow trends, and some who lead them, and it’s looking like Detroit-style pizza is at the front of the pack in today’s pizza Iditarod.