As a born-and-bred Michigander, I must confess a certain surprise at the recent influx of New York City pizzerias offering “Detroit-style” pies. I mean, I ate my fair share (possibly more) of pizza in Southeastern Michigan in my lifetime, but I’d have been hard-pressed to define a particular style other than “thicker than New York.” For an area not largely known for its culinary exports, this would seem as arbitrary as having your hometown suddenly mentioned in conjunction with something deceptively simple, whose very nature you take for granted as the way that thing is everywhere: Topeka-style pancakes, or Raleigh-style burgers, perhaps. Did Buffalonians feel this way once chicken wings went global, I wonder?
Industrially speaking, if you think of Detroit as an automotive empire, that’s a good beginning in understanding the city’s pizza personality. Geographically speaking, if you think of Detroit as being left of New York, but not as far as Chicago, that’s also useful, with directions as with pizza. In essence, a Detroit-style pie is a square pizza, whose slightly thick, crunchy crust has the toppings and cheese baked into it, with sauce on top. “It might look basic to the eye,” says Wesley Pikula, Chief Operating Officer of Buddy’s in Detroit, but its nature is anything but.
The squareness might be the most visually defining characteristic of Detroit-style, which began at Buddy’s, and has inspired the names of several New York City tribute restaurants such as Emmy Squared and Lions & Tigers & Squares. However, the squareness does not stand alone.
“The procedure and the process and the toppings that go into it are specific to this pizza,” says Pikula, who described a painstaking process of crafting, proofing, stretching, and pressing a “lean” dough—no sugar or oil added—into a metal pan to achieve the signature texture. “You want a light, crunchy crust; almost like a crostini.” Keeping the sauce on top not only allows for the flavor of the tomatoes to sing on their own, but prevents it from saturating the crust to maintain the crunchy structure. Wisconsin brick cheese is the other x-factor that gives an almost buttery dimension to the cheese element. Achieving consistency of quality in each layer is key, explains Pikula. Once you get everything right it comes together in a natural alchemy: “It’s a well-balanced food item; like a great steak, you don’t have to do much to it.”
Understanding the what of Detroit-style pizza is one thing. Understanding the why of Detroit-style pizza is what truly makes it a uniquely American foodstuff worthy of global recognition. Buddy’s, founded in 1946, is considered the birthplace of the Detroit-style square pie. Its longevity, and the dozens of pizzerias it inspired, comes down to the pan. Detroit makes cars. With cars comes an abundance of scrap metal. “The pans themselves were scrap metal pans,” Pikula explained. “They could be used as drip trays. I’m sure one of the regulars brought one of those things in. They stretched the dough into it and it did the job.” Steve Sims of Jet’s Pizza, the second Detroit pizzeria to take on this approach beginning in 1978 (which helped to define the city’s style), also credits the metal pans for the “iconic caramelized corners” that no other style can claim.
The now-ness of Detroit-style pizza has to do with the city itself, and its recent renaissance, Pikula believes. Detroit could have been as big as Chicago-style by now, especially when you consider the number of major pizza chains that come from the area: Little Caesar’s, Domino’s, and Hungry Howie’s are all based in the Mitten State. “Detroit has been rusted over for so long, and there are so many little cool things that never got the same recognition because nobody wanted to associate with Detroit,” Pikula says. But that tide seems to be turning, as Detroit-style pizzas can now be found not only in New York, but in other American cities and even other countries.
Has the COO of Buddy’s tried out some of the others for authenticity? Indeed he has. The verdict? “They have nothing to be ashamed of,” Pikula laughs. As for the continuation of the Detroit-style pizza movement: “It should be referred to as Buddy’s-style, but we don’t mind giving Detroit the banner. If somebody wants to create their own version of Detroit-style—salut!”
Related Video: How to Stretch Pizza Dough
Header image courtesy of Buddy's.