How Detroit secretly created the best pizza you've never tasted

Brad Cohen

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If you ask your average New Yorker, all pizza falls into two basic categories: New York-style (i.e. real pizza) and everything else. But coming from Detroit – secretly one of the best pizza cities in the country – I know better.

Moving to New York in the late aughts was exciting. It meant 4 am last call, not having to worry about driving ever again, and – arguably most importantly – being able to get a decent slice 24 hours a day.

New York is – and I don’t say this lightly – the greatest pizza city on earth. Italy included. But until recently, it was missing one very important thing from its pizza landscape: Detroit-style pizza.

Emmy Squared changed all that when it opened in 2016, serving up as good – if not, gasp, better – of Detroit pizza as I could get back home. Emmy came in with an already highly regarded pizza pedigree, thanks to its wood-fired, thin-crust predecessor Emily. So right off the bat, New Yorkers began discovering Detroit pizza, even if they didn’t know that that’s what they were eating.

Similarly, ‘za lovers all over the country have started getting in on the same secret, with Austin’s Via 313 (three locations and counting) Denver’s Blue Pan, Chicago’s Union Squared and at Jet’s Pizza locations across the country.

And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll seek out Detroit pizza in your hometown. But first, you may be wondering, what is it?

Well, for the most part, Detroit pizza has a few key elements: it’s square (or rectangle), thanks to cooking in a steel pan; it has a burnt-cheese crust; the sauce is on top of the pie; and the dough is airy in the middle – and if the pizzeria knows what it’s doing, it will be crispy on the bottom.

The pizza may hail from Detroit, but it has roots in Sicily, where bakeries in Palermo would sling trays of sfincione, focaccia-like bread topped with tomatoes, onions and occasionally a bit of cheese and/or anchovies. Sfincione is likely also where New-York style Sicilian pizza has roots, but while New York pizzerias started cranking out thick, dense, rectangular slices and called it Sicilian, Detroit stuck with a lighter, airier dough that lies somewhere between its focaccia-like ancestor and New York Sicilian.

Square pizza, as we generally call it back home, got its start in the 1946, when a former speakeasy – or “blind pig,” in Detroit parlance – called Buddy’s needed food to bring in some much-needed cash flow. Thanks to soldiers leaving for WWII and the legalization of booze, Buddy's now had less customers and more competition (remember, it was a real speakeasy, not a cute candle-lit bar with fancy $14 cocktails). 

That's when Buddy’s owner Gus Guerra started making pizza. Unlike sfincione or New York Sicilian – made in trays – Guerra baked what he just called “Sicilian” pies in something Detroit had in abundance: blue steel drip pans used to hold small parts at assembly lines at the city’s Big 3 car factories.

Those pans – along with the cheese – are the real keys to Detroit pizza. Roughly 2 to 3 inches thick, they had plenty of space for the dough to rise, but they also formed a wall for a burnt-cheese crust to form. But more on that later.

Similar to sourdough, the saltwater-yeasted dough of Detroit pizza is proofed in the pan for up to several hours before baking – meaning it’s given time to rise, which gives it its soft, airy quality. This proofing is the main difference between the crust of Detroit style and that of New York Sicilian.

Equally important to both the pie and the crust itself is the cheese. Detroit pizza generally uses brick cheese, which is a cheese that’s somewhere between mozzarella and cheddar (if not 100%, brick makes up at least a large portion of a cheese blend), The sauce goes on top of the pizza, and that's also important, because it means the cheese goes directly onto the dough.

Brick has got a higher fat content, and when it melts, it drips that glorious fat directly into the dough, giving a rich, buttery flavor to crust and allowing it to brown the bottom of the pie cooking in the pan.

The cheese also drips to the edges of the pan, forming what high-falutin’ chefs call frico crust (a word nobody in the blue-collar city of Detroit would ever dream of using). What that really means is that the cheese melts onto the edges of the pan, forming a burnt-cheese crust. It’s similar to what happens if you let cheese overflow out of a grilled cheese sandwich, and it drips onto the pan and burns, but sticks to the outside of the bread.

This burnt cheese crust, to me, is the real key to Detroit pizza. It’s why my family will only order small pizzas, where every piece is a corner, rather than larges, where there are middle pieces, and therefore having more burnt cheese and a higher crust-to-pizza ratio. This is the way to avoid fights. And believe me, the last corner of a Detroit pizza is a thing worth fighting for.

Brad Cohen

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