When it comes to Detroit, the city is often known for three main exports: cars, music — and pizza. Not to be overshadowed by the flimsy, mass-produced chain pizza companies founded in Detroit (namely Domino’s and Little Caesars), the city boasts a hearty pizza known as the Detroit-style square.
With its rectangular shape, light, airy dough, and savory, browned cheese perimeter, the Detroit-style pie encourages savoring of the corner pieces, where crust real estate is most plentiful. True to its blue-collar Motor City roots, the square is an everyman of pizza, inviting eaters to feast in a come-as-you-are fashion — either with a fork and knife or by hand.
But what makes a Detroit square and where should one go for the best? Nearly all Detroit-style purveyors can trace their origins to a common ancestor at Buddy's Pizza (more on this later), but despite this shared history, Detroiters have their own allegiances to pizzerias. From style-specific terminology to history, here's everything you need to know about Detroit-style pizza.
A Detroit-style pizza lexicon
It's a "square"
A geometry teacher might be inclined to argue, but despite its clearly rectangular form, Detroit-style pizzas are in fact "square." It's also not to be confused with our Windy City neighbor's creation the "deep dish," which is really more like pie than pizza.
Perhaps the closest cousin to the Detroit-style pizza is the Sicilian sfincione, a spongy focaccia baked in a rectangular pan with toppings pressed directly into the dough and topped with olive oil and tomato sauce. Detroit-style pizza makers utilize a similar dough recipe that results in a light, porous dough that's not chewy like a New York-style pie.
Very occasionally one finds a guide that describes the Detroit square as a "Detroit Red Top." It's a moniker that serves to describe the particularly uncommon construction of the square pizza, with a crust covered in reverse of what you'd expect from a traditional pizza — toppings like pepperoni on the bottom, followed by loads of cheese and red sauce drizzled on top. While perhaps unconventional, the "red top" helps to avoid a soggy crust. The tradeoff being, of course, fewer crispy pepperonis.
While perhaps unconventional, the red top helps to avoid a soggy crust. The tradeoff? Fewer crispy pepperonis.
Industrial pansThe Detroit square could not take shape without the all-important pan. Buddy's, which has the distinction of being the "ground zero" of Detroit-style pizza, found the makings of an ideal pizza vessel in an industrial blue steel pan used by auto workers at Detroit's many factories. According to Buddy's vice president of operations Wesley Pikula, in the early days, new pans came to the restaurant with a silicon coating that was then removed in-house.
As years have passed, some of the original makers of these pans have gone out of business, forcing some restaurants to experiment with different types of vessels. The traditional pans generally come in two sizes — an 8-by-10 inch pan which yields four slices and an 10-by-14 inch pan that yields eight slices — and with sides angled outwards so that the area at the top of the pan is greater than at the bottom. At one time, Buddy's attempted to scale up to an large 12-by-16 pan, but the dough was "very difficult to stretch" to the correct size, says Pikula.
While many pizza recipes call for mozzarella, the Detroit-style (at least at Buddy's) relies on loads of Wisconsin brick cheese, a mild-flavored, semi-soft cheese similar to cheddar but with a high fat content. For restaurants that don't butter their pans, the fat from the cheese serves to give the oil-less dough a buttery flavor. On top, the cheese stays gooey in the center, but it also spreads out towards the edges of the pan, caramelizing into a crisp, golden cheese crust.
How to eat Detroit-style pizza
New Yorkers may shame those who deign to eat a slice with a fork and knife, but, when served at around 230 degrees Fahrenheit, the thick Detroit slices lend themselves to a utensil approach. Marie Easterby, co-owner of Cloverleaf in Eastpointe, says she's seen an evolution in the way diners eat pizza at her family's restaurant. "When I was little, my mom and dad didn't even have silverware, they just had paper plates and people grabbed it with their hands," she recalls. "But now people are much more sophisticated in their tastes and they absolutely use silverware." Wesley Pikula of Buddy's adds: "It's one of those products that you may start with a knife and fork and then go with the hand later."
"It’s one of those products that you may start with a knife and fork and then go with the hand later."
Among the numerous parlors peddling square pies in Metro Detroit, three main restaurants seem to rise above the fray. Buddy's Rendezvous, better known as Buddy's Pizza or simply Buddy's, opened in 1936 and later became the granddaddy of the Detroit-style slice. As years passed, the founder and his employees went on to open new restaurants. Thus, suburban restaurants — Loui's Pizza in Hazel Park and Cloverleaf Pizza in Eastpointe — came to be. This triad has steadfastly weathered decades of diners and the ups and downs of economics by spreading the Detroit-style pizza gospel.
Founded: 1946 (bar opened in 1936)
Oven: Gas or electric (depending on location)
Signature pizza: Pepperoni and Wisconsin brick cheese with sauce on top and "the Detroiter"
Location: 17125 Conant St., Detroit, MI 48212
Notes: Gluten-free options available
All Detroit-style pizza lore inevitably begins at Buddy's, a little bar and restaurant that rests on the corner of Conant Street and McNichols Road near the border of Hamtramck. In nearly every tale, Buddy's is credited with introducing the Detroit-style pizza recipe, though who exactly came up with it and how, no one's really quite sure.
Buddy's opened shop as a speakeasy in the 1930s — one of several thousand operating in the area during Prohibition — under the ownership of Gus Guerra and his uncle-in-law. Come 1946, Guerra expanded Buddy's into a full-fledge restaurant. Here, memories become more foggy. In one version of the story, Guerra's Italian-born mother-in-law taught him how to make Sicilian-style pizza — baked in a square pan with layers of pepperoni, cheese, and sauce on top. In another, longtime employee Connie Piccinato takes credit for teaching Guerra the recipe. Whoever inspired the product, it proved marketable. In 1953, Gus sold the business to two partners — Jimmy Valenti and Jimmy Bonacorsi — in order to open a place of his own in East Detroit (now Eastpointe). But Buddy's lived on continuing its tradition of consistency, changing hands one more time in 1970, to Billy and Shirlee Jacobs. Their son, Robert Jacobs, is the president of the company.
Under the Jacobs' stewardship, the Buddy's brand has expanded to 10 additional metro Detroit locations (both carryout and full-scale restaurants). Each new iteration offers a somewhat slicker vibe, but the original Detroit restaurant maintains its casual setting with drop ceilings, wood paneling, booths, and tables draped in black and red checked cloths. Buddy's also stays faithful in its original recipe that uses proprietary Wisconsin brick cheese, sauce, and dough.
Signature pizza: Meat Lover's and Hawaiian
Location: 23141 Dequindre Rd., Hazel Park, MI 48030
Notes: Order the Chianti; a pound of cheese is used on every pizza
Loui's Pizza is the underdog of the Detroit-style pizza triad. The restaurant's French-born founder Louis Tourtois began his pizza career at 17 years old under his wife's uncle, Jimmy Valenti, and his partner Jimmy Bonacorsi. A hard worker with a skill for making pizza, Tourtois helped earn Buddy's one of its first blue ribbons for pizza and aspired to one day inherit the restaurant. When Billy and Shirlee Jacobs offered to buyout the Jimmys, the cook saw his hopes dashed. Tourtois quit the restaurant and approached a neighboring bar, Shield's, about renting its kitchen space for a Detroit-style pizzeria. The partnership proved profitable for Shield's, which also eventually attracted a buyer. Rather than hire Tourtois, the buyer locked him out of the restaurant and asked staff to recreate the chef's recipe.
Once again without a kitchen, Tourtois turned to the working-class Detroit suburb of Hazel Park where he established Loui's Pizza in 1977. The third generation family-owned restaurant maintains stubborn independence when it comes to the business, refusing to expand, franchise, or sell. "Louis hasn't changed. He keeps the same staff. The menu hasn't changed. He doesn't do a lot of modifications," says manager Laurie Stepetic.
Evenings at Loui's are often packed with families gathered around long glass-topped tables and huddled in red booths. Nearly every wall is hung with clusters of white Christmas lights and Chianti bottles encased in woven baskets. Signing a Chianti bottle and hanging it on the wall is a tradition among customers that's become almost as iconic as the restaurant's pizza.
Oven: Deck oven at Eastpointe location, conveyor ovens at carryout locations
Signature pizza: Cheese and pepperoni
Location: 24443 Gratiot Ave., Eastpointe, MI 48021
Notes: Gluten-free options available
Located in the suburb of Eastpointe (formerly East Detroit), Cloverleaf also claims deep ties to the original Buddy's location on Conant. In an effort to breakaway from his partner at Buddy's, founder Gus Guerra sold the Detroit business in 1953 to the Jimmys and purchased a little white farmhouse style bar called Cloverleaf in Eastpointe. Guerra kept the Cloverleaf name as a way of attracting Irish clientele in the neighborhood, but introduced his Detroit-style pizza recipe to the menu. Like the original Buddy's pizza, Cloverleaf's square pies became a hit.
A fire devastated the original restaurant in 1993, however, the family was able to rebuild and added personal touches like a kid's dining area, says Guerra's daughter Marie Easterby. Today, she and her brother Jack Guerra carry on the family legacy, with Jack expanding into several carryout restaurants. Easterby is careful not to reveal too many of Cloverleaf's recipe secrets, but says the restaurant uses a special blend of cheeses and a classic deck oven at the original location that radiates heat from below the baking pans. The result is a crispy crust that makes a satisfying crunch when quartered with a pizza cutter.
Want more? Here's where else to find Detroit-style slices, in the Metro area and beyond:
Other Locations: Metro Detroit
Detroit Style Pizza Company
Other Locations: Beyond
Via 313 (Austin, Texas)
Blue Pan Pizza (Denver, Colorado)
Loui Loui's (Louisville, Kentucky)
Descendant (Toronto, Canada)
Emmy Squared (New York City)