Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Extended Look at All Square: A History of Detroit-Style Pizza

Buddy's "Detroiter" Pizza
As an addendum to my post on Detroit-style pizza featured on the Pure Michigan blog, this post will provide an all-encompassing source for everything you need to know about Detroit-style pizza. Free from word-count restrictions, I can now lay out some additional critical information for both Michiganders in search of pizza in the D and help Michigan transplants find some square pie.

As I began thinking about topics to write for the Pure Michigan spot, I had a few ideas bounce around in my head before settling on Detroit-style pizza. I settled on it for a couple reasons: 1) it’s delicious 2) it’s not that well-known outside the area, and 3) a lot of people familiar with Detroit's square pies don’t realize that you can’t get them elsewhere. I know I did not come to that last realization until I moved outside of Michigan. First I lived in DC, where I became exposed to Neapolitan-style places like Two Amy’s. Then I lived in Chicago and slowly came around on Chicago-style pizza*. I am an equal opportunity enjoyer when it comes to pizza, but none of them hit the same sweet spot for me like the square pizzas in the D.

First, a big thanks to all the contributors to the forums at, from which I gathered most of this info. I used to think I was into pizza but these guys are out there reverse engineering pizzas, using calipers to measure crust thickness, and measuring recipes out to thousandths of grams. They know pizza.

It's All About the Pan
Everything that is delicious about the square pies are due to the pan - the caramelized cheese crust that forms  around the edge, the crispy bottom, the thick airy dough - all due to the "blue steel" industrial parts plans. From what I have been able to tell, all places in Detroit source their pans from the same manufacturing company - Dover Parkersburg (see "utility trays" here). I was able to snap a quick pic inside the kitchen of Detroit Style Pizza Company in St. Clair Shores and they look exactly like the pans on the Dover Parkersburg website:

Unfortunately, Dover does not sell individual pans to the public, but the pans do pop up from time to time at restaurant supply stores. They appear to be available online here. I have my order in so I can begin experimenting with recreating Detroit-style pizza at home. 

Where it all Began: Buddy's

The roots of Detroit-style pizza trace back to the original Buddy's location where the pizza was first served by Gus Guerra. Gus sold the business in 1953 and left to take over Cloverleaf Bar & Restaurant. Since then, Buddy's has expanded to nine locations across the Detroit metro area. 

The lone location within the city limits, the original Buddy's location sits on an unassuming corner on Detroit's eastside at 6 Mile and Conant and provides a snapshot of Detriot - past & present.

I think I may have heard the echo of an Ernie Harwell "loooong gone!" home run call when I stepped down into the bar area at Buddy's. The dining area is classic old-school Italian, with checkered tablecloths and a long entry way filled with articles and photos of varying levels of celebrities documenting Buddy's storied history. And if that's not enough nostalgia for you, Buddy's has bocce ball courts that are open to everyone dining inside.

Oh, they do serve pizza here too. I've been to a couple other Buddy's locations and they've consistently been delicious. What I like the best about Buddy's is the sauce - the light tomato sauce with a good hit of herbs elevates the pizza to legendary status. The cheese - a source of much debate among extreme pizza afficiandos that are trying to reverse engineer Detroit-style pizza -  gets a touch of sharpness from shaved parmesean. The crust wasn't quite as crispy as I like my Detroit-style pizzas, but a minor complaint to otherwise perfect pizza.

A Pizza Lineage: Cloverleaf, Loui's and Detroit Style Pizza Company
Many of the pizza joints in Detroit can somehow trace their roots to Buddy's. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a snapshot of a few of the big names in the Detroit-style pizza scene. 

cherubs love square pizza
After Gus sold Buddy's, he moved on to take over at Cloverleaf Bar & Restaurant in what was then East Detroit and what is currently Eastpointe. We ordered a pepperoni pizza with pepperoni on top (toppings are typically applied underneath the cheese, but I like to order pepperoni on top so that the pepperoni gets nice and charred). 

Unfortunately, the pepperoni didn't quite crisp up like I was hoping it would. The lack of crisp in the pepperoni was made up for in an extra crispy edge of caramelized cheese. 

Next up was Loui's, founded by long-time Buddy's chef Louis Tourtois. Louis worked at Buddy's for 27 years, eventually left to take over the kitchen at Shield's (another Detroit-style pizza staple), and would later leave to open his own place in Hazel Park - Loui's Pizza. Louis still runs the restaurant, along with his son Louis - they are the only two men that know the recipe at Loui's, according to our waitress, whom I have no reason to doubt given her 18 years of experience at Loui's. 

The pizzas at Buddy's and Loui's are very comparable. The crusts are nearly identical. The toppings provide a bit of contrast - the cheese at Loui's was milder, likely not hit with the shaved parmesean like Buddy's. Most people agree that the cheese used on Detroit-style pizza is not standard mozzarella, but rather some combination of brick cheese and/or white cheddar. My money is on brick cheese as the cheese never seems sharp enough to be white cheddar. 

We enjoyed our with a bottle of chianti, like thousands of patrons before us had if the ceilings are any indication.

The last stop on our tour was relative new kid on the block Detroit Style Pizza Company. Formerly operated under the Cloverleaf name, Detroit Style Pizza Company opened under the new name earlier in 2012 and is a creation of Gus Guerra mentee Shawn Randazzo. Shawn was recently crowned World Champion Pizza Maker of the Year at the 2012 International Pizza Challenge with his Detroit-style pie.

Shawn is putting an updated spin on the classic square pizza with his "Margherita in the D" pizza with slices of fresh tomato, fresh basil, roasted garlic, red onion and a scoops crushed tomatoes.

The crust of this pizza may have been the best in the bunch. Perfectly crispy along the sides and bottom, yet light and doughy on the interior. I was also a fan of the traditional Margherita toppings of plain crushed tomatoes and fresh basil, and I can never get too much roasted garlic. The drippings of crispy cheese rising from the edge of the pizza are worthy of their own exhibit at the DIA:

The Detroit Style Pizza Company location in St. Clair Shores has a couple tables, but is mainly a take-out location, I am not sure about the other location in Clinton Township. The take-out location did have an open kitchen, which allowed me to get a glimpse of the baking process. Unlike the conveyor pizza ovens at Jet's and the ones I believe Buddy's uses, they use the traditional "deck" oven seen off to the right here:

The waitress at Loui's told me about the deck ovens as well. At Detroit Style Pizza Company, I saw the pizzzamaker open one of the drawers, pull a pizza pan out, and lift up the pizza to look at the bottom to assess its done-ness. In contrast, pizzas cooked in a conveyor oven are placed at one end of the oven, pass through the oven on a conveyor belt, and come out the other side, thus ensuring each pie bakes for the same amount of time. Some say this improves consistency, others say that cooking them in a deck oven and checking the bottom is the only way to ensure a proper level of crispiness. I do have to admit that the pies at Detroit Style Pizza Company and Loui's were perfectly crispy everywhere where the dough touched the pan.

The Final Verdict
This is the part where I declare a champion and who has the best pizza. I'm not going to do that though as that misses the point. These places are all worthy of a visit, if only to form your own opinion. Or give you an excuse to cruise around parts of the Detroit that you probably haven't been to. While driving around, we spotted an old Italian bakery and grabbed some cannoli (like we were going to have room for dessert) and passed several old school burger, barbecue, and coney island spots that looked worthy of a visit. 

I'm also not going to try to tell you how much better Detroit-style pizza is than any other style of pizza. I love everything from the classic, extremely thin crust Neapolitan-style to the lasagna-like stuffed Chicago-style. Good pizza is good pizza, and Detroit's variety is up there with the best. 

For you displaced Michiganders out there, I've tried to track down pizza places across the country that are serving Detroit-style pizza. If you know of a place, leave it in the comments and I'll update the list! (sidenote: how have none of the Detroit places opened up a location in Chicago? With all the displaced Michiganders living in Chicago, it would be an instant goldmine. You can thank me later with royalty payments.)

If you don't live close to any of these places, stay tuned for an update on how to make Detroit-style pizza at home!

Detroit-style pizza outside the mitten:

Via 313
Austin, TX

Pizza Squared
Tampa, FL

Brown Dog Pizza
Telluride, CO

Northside Nathan’s
Las Vegas, NV

Norm’s Wayside
Buffalo, MN

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
San Francisco, CA

Detroit-Style Pizza elsewhere on the web
Serious Eats Roundup: 
Great Detroit-Style Pizza at Buddy's
United States of Pizza: Michigan

Wikipedia on Detroit-Style pizza

*There are actually three types of Chicago-style that you’ll find at most pizza places in Chicago, and even in Chicago they are not consistently defined. I go with the terminology used at the pinnacle of Chicago-style pizza - The Art of Pizza. Stuffed – the deep dish pie filled with cheese & toppings, with sauce on top - this is what people typically mean when they say "Chicago-style." Pan – cooked in the same pans as Stuffed, but with a ~1" thick crust with sauce and cheese applied in a normal fashion. Thin crust – I try to not discriminate when it comes to any particular style of pizza, but Chicago-style thin crust is just the worst type of pizza I’ve ever had; I’ve had it plenty of times from a variety of places and it’s consistently awful.


  1. I think this is the best pizza in town.

    Zion Pizza

  2. Mama Rosa's on the eastside-Grosse Pointe Park on Mack Ave is excellent. I have lived away from Mich for the last 30 years and every time I go back I have to have MAMA ROSA'S

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  4. Union Squared in Chicago has great Detroit style pizza outside of Detroit.
    My favorite Detroit style pizza is Loui's in Detroit by far, but as said, they are all good & worth a visit...