For decades, in Metro Detroit, we just called it “square pizza.”
Now, Detroit-style pizza — with a thick and airy crust, cheese that goes to the edge and red sauce that’s usually ladled on top of the cheese, all baked in a deep pan — is having a moment in the national spotlight.
It’s no wonder why. Detroit style is sturdier than those floppy New York slices and easier to munch than Chicago’s super deep-dish pies. With the sauce on the top, as is often the technique, the crust of Detroit’s style doesn’t get soggy and the cheese stays anchored to the rim all the way to the last crispy bite.
The gospel of Motown’s square slices — made famous by names like Buddy’s, Cloverleaf, Jet’s and Loui’s — has been spreading for a few years, with Detroit-style pizzerias opening outside of Michigan in New York, Pennsylvania and Denver. Some even expressly nod to our city in their name, like Via 313 Pizzeria in Austin, Texas, and Motown Square Pizza in Washington, D.C.
“We’re doing our best to pay tribute,” said Emily Hyland, co-founder of New York’s Emmy Squared, a Detroit-style pizza brand that started in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2016. “We chose to call our pizza Detroit-style pizza not because we’re trying to rip it off or be a perfect facsimile, but really to pay tribute to such an awesome style of pizza.”
A 2021 trend forecast report from Yelp.com declared that “Detroit-style pizza has gone national” and reported that the rate of review mentions for “Detroit-style pizza” is up 52%. Things got even more frenzied a few weeks ago when Pizza Hut — the world’s largest pizza chain in terms of number of locations — launched its own version of square pizza that the company calls “Detroit Style” right on the box.
“It’s just really taken over, hasn’t it?” said Marie Guerra Easterby, who owns Cloverleaf Pizza with her brother Jack Guerra. Their father, Gus Guerra, founded Buddy’s Rendezvous in the 1940s, and later Cloverleaf, and is considered to be the father of what we know today as Detroit-style pizza, inspired by his mother-in-law Crucifissa Passalacqua’s Sicilian recipe.
Easterby said this is the most popular Detroit-style pizza has ever been.
“It’s something that is very complimentary on a fine product that dad created that I think other businesses have been built on,” she said. “It makes me laugh because I call it our 75-year-overnight-success story. That’s how long we’ve been in this business making these square pizzas.”
“It’s not an easy product to get right, so more power to everyone who wants to get in,” said Buddy’s Pizza CEO Burton Heiss. He points to four major keys to great Detroit-style pizza: the dough, which Buddy’s makes fresh daily by hand, the steel deep-dish pan, the Wisconsin brick cheese that they hand-grind daily, and the sauce on top.
“It’s a hand-crafted product. We’re not looking for, nor have we figured out a way that you can take any shortcuts,” Heiss said.
While there is a national eye on this style of pizza right now, the pandemic is negatively affecting the service industry, especially dine-in restaurants. Heiss said Buddy’s made changes to increase its delivery and carryout options, but overall business was down 20-25% since the beginning of the pandemic. Easterby reported a similar dip in business for Cloverleaf.
As for the Detroit-style pizza’s recent national success, Easterby said she believes her dad would be “happy and smiling” if he knew the family recipe had been an inspiration for this long.
“The Motor City is known for its cars and coneys and Motown and the Hummer cocktail, and I’m proud to say my family contributed the Detroit-style pizza, which is getting discovered by everybody across the United States and that’s kind of cool,” she said.
Deep-dish fans across the nation who have recently discovered Detroit-style pizza may be surprised to learn that the Sicilian-influenced pie dates back to the 1940s and that some of the major players of Detroit-style pizza in its first few decades are all connected.
First there’s Buddy’s. Guerra opened Buddy’s Rendezvous restaurant in Detroit in 1944 with his wife’s two uncles. In 1946 Buddy’s started selling a few pizzas, a food that wasn’t nearly as popular as it was in the later part of the 20th century.
Easterby said Guerra sold Buddy’s and the right to use the pizza recipe to his friends “big Jimmy and little Jimmy” (Jimmy Bonacorsi and Jimmy Valenti) in 1953, then opened Cloverleaf in East Detroit (now Eastpointe) on his own. The story goes that in order to help the new owners succeed, Guerra agreed to not sell his square pizza within two miles of the Conant Street restaurant.
Around the time of the sale, Valenti hired his niece’s fiancé, a “Frenchman” named Louis Tourtois, to work in the kitchen and make the square pizzas. Guerra himself showed Tourtois how to make the Buddy’s recipe, says Easterby.
Tourtois was the chef at Buddy’s in 1970 when The Detroit News’ staff declared the deep-dish square style to be the “Best in Detroit.” The author of the article, James Treloar, kept the pool of entrants to the city proper, making Cloverleaf and the originator Guerra ineligible because his restaurant was in the suburbs.
At that time, the name on the pizza box was Buddy’s, the chef was Tourtois and the recipe was Guerra’s.
It was arguably the start of the avalanche of accolades for Buddy’s, which has gotten a “best pizza” award from nearly every media outlet locally as well as several national food publications.
Easterby believes Tourtois moved on from Buddy’s when Bonacorsi and Valenti sold it to the Jacobs family, who ushered the brand into the multi-location company it is today. Tourtois went on to make square pizza at nearby Shield’s Bar for a while before opening his own restaurant, Loui’s Pizza in Hazel Park, in 1977.
A 1978 Detroit News article described Tourtois as “the king of pizzas.” In 1980, he gave Treloar a hint as to what makes Detroit-style so good.
He wouldn’t discuss his dough or sauce formula, except to say that there’s very little oregano in the sauce.
“I put the pepperoni on first, under the cheese,” said Tourtois, adding that he uses almost a pound of brick cheese, not mozzarella, because it has a heavy butterfat content that can stand up to the heat. “I bake my pizza in a very hot oven — 700 degrees, at least.”
Tourtois’ grandson, Nykolas Sulkiwskyj, still owns and operates Loui’s Pizza in Hazel Park, the only location.
Outside of Michigan
Kristen Calverley and Nate Peck have the unique experience of selling gourmet Detroit-style square pizza both inside and outside of the Motor City.
The restaurant veterans first opened their pizzeria Michigan & Trumbull in Pittsburgh in 2017, and after a short stint at Detroit’s Fort Street Galley food hall, opened a standalone restaurant and bar in Corktown in early 2020, right near the historic corner for which the company is named.
The two Michigan natives knew they wanted to open a restaurant in Pittsburgh, and decided on Detroit-style pizza simply because they missed it.
“The whole reason we got started is because no one was doing it there,” said Calverley. “There was eventually a Jet’s that opened, and it would take like 45 minutes to get there because of traffic and I would still drive and get it.”
She said sometimes a customer might not understand how their pizza would be different than others they are used to in that area.
“We would get the occasional customer that would say ‘you know, can we have one that’s less burned’ or they weren’t familiar with that crispy edge, so it was a little bit of an educational process and we got there eventually,” she said. “We ended up having such great regulars and a lot of great press there in Pittsburgh. It was hard to leave that and come back to Detroit knowing that we would be competing with so many great Detroit-style institutions.”
Like other new-school Detroit-style pizzerias, at Michigan & Trumbull Peck and Calverley do some things that are not 100% traditional. Instead of brick cheese, for example, they use a 50/50 blend of whole milk and skim milk mozzarella. In addition to traditional red sauce pizzas, they also make “white pizzas” with just garlic-infused olive oil and on others put a house-made vodka sauce.
As for the uptick in popularity of Detroit-style pizza, Calverley is enjoying it, but said she doesn’t see them expanding Michigan & Trumbull to more locations. She has been toying with the idea of getting into frozen pizza sales.
“This is enough for us, and I think we’re really modest in our expectations,” she said. “Neither one of us is looking to get rich quick. The fact that we’re working for ourselves is a win.”
A pizza maker doesn’t have to have grown up nibbling Motor City squares to want to be in the Detroit-style pizza business.
Hyland of Emmy Squared — which has locations in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Nashville — describes herself as a “Jersey girl, through and through” who is just a fan of our style of pizza. She says in New York City there are two camps: people who are die-hard round pizza fans and those who know the beauty of a square slice.
“You have a whole population of transplants from the Midwest who came to the city for college or for career or whatnot who were super excited to have that nostalgic pizza of their childhood available here in New York,” Hyland said.
Where to get Detroit-style pizza locally
In Detroit, there is a group of longstanding favorites as well as a new generation of pizza makers who are taking the city’s style and making it their own. Here’s our guide to the best.
The foundation of Detroit-style pizza
Cloverleaf Pizza: The original bar and restaurant opened by Gus Guerra in the 1950s after he sold Buddy’s Rendezvous is still open at 24443 Gratiot in Eastpointe and is operated by Guerra’s children, Marie Guerra Easterby and Jack Guerra. They serve “original Motor City square” pies at carryout locations across Macomb County, too, and have added gluten-free pizzas to their menus. cloverleaf-pizza.com
Buddy’s Pizza: The original Buddy’s restaurant, 17125 Conant, is celebrating 75 years of serving Detroit-style pizza in 2021. The local brand has 16 sit-down locations throughout Michigan and three carryout-only outposts. In 2020, Buddy’s started shipping pizza nationally via Goldbelly.com. The brand also sells pasta, salads, burgers and gluten-free pizza. buddyspizza.com
Loui’s Pizza: Founded in 1977 by Louis Tourtois, Loui’s Pizza is known for having some of the best Detroit-style pizza and also for its delightfully dated dining room decorated with Chianti bottles. The pizza has been made the same way for decades, with a crispy crust, a perfect amount of red sauce on top and pepperoni tucked underneath a boatload of cheese. Besides Detroit-style pizza, Loui’s serves burgers, pasta dishes and antipasto salads packed with Italian meats and cheese. During the pandemic, Loui’s has been open for curbside carryout only, Friday-Sunday. 23141 Dequindre, Hazel Park. (248) 547-1711.
Niki’s: Many of the city’s pizza companies have Italian roots, but at Niki’s it’s all Greek. Its variety with feta cheese was voted one of the best pizzas in America by GQ magazine, and this Greektown favorite is known not only for cheesy, crispy Detroit-style pizza, but pizza-by-the-slice and (pre-pandemic) late hours, keeping the post-bar crowd well fed for decades. 735 Beaubien, Detroit. (313) 961-4303 or nikisdetroit.com.
Jet’s Pizza: Founded more than 40 years ago, this brand wasn’t the first, but has possibly done the most to spread the word of Detroit’s style of pizza beyond southeast Michigan. Eugene and John Jetts started the company in 1978 as a party store in Sterling Heights that sold pizza using their mother’s recipe. Today there are around 400 locations in 19 states. jetspizza.com
Original Buscemi’s: Starting as a party store that sold East Coast-style hoagie sandwiches in the 1950s, Buscemi’s started selling their square “Italian pizza” a few years later. In the 1980s they switched to an easier-to-make square pizza with the sauce under the cheese, according to second generation owner Anthony Buscemi. In 2016, to celebrate 60 years of business, the Roseville-based brand brought back its Detroit-style pizza with cheese that goes to the edge and sauce on top. Today Buscemi’s has franchise locations all over Metro Detroit, many in Macomb County. originalbuscemis.com
Green Lantern: Another name in Detroit-style pizza history that started decades ago and has many locations today, selling both round and square pies plus subs, salads and other pub grub. greenlanternpizza.com
A new generation of Detroit-style pizza makers
Detroit Style Pizza Co.: Formerly a Cloverleaf Pizza store, this St. Clair Shores company became Detroit Style Pizza Co. when owner Shawn Randazzo was named World Champion Pizza Maker of the Year at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in 2012 with his own recipe. Authentically Detroit-style, this pizza company also has a mail-order business out of Roseville. Last year was a roller coaster for the business, which saw sales soar after a positive Barstool Sports review in the spring, followed by the passing of Randazzo in December from brain cancer. 28630 Harper, St. Clair Shores. (586) 445-2810 or detroitstylepizza.co
Como’s: If it’s been several years since you’ve had pizza at Como’s in Ferndale, forget all you think you know. Chef Zack Sklar and his team at Peas & Carrots Hospitality (Social Kitchen in Birmingham, Mex in Bloomfield Hills) completely gutted and renovated the decades-old pizzeria and reopened in 2019 with Detroit-style deep dish instead of round pies. Como’s pizza is made with a gourmet tomato sauce on top that has a bit of a bite to it, a golden crunchy crust and house-made toppings. The restaurant has gluten-free and vegan pizza options. Como’s pizza recently became available out of the Maple Theater, too. 22812 Woodward, Ferndale. (248) 677-4439 or comosrestaurant.com.
Michigan & Trumbull: Originally opened in Pittsburgh, this Detroit-style pizza restaurant moved to Corktown in early 2020. Currently open for curbside and delivery, they have gluten-free and vegan options, plus calzones called “Boblo boats.” Each month they develop a specialty pizza for their “good corner” and donate proceeds to a local charity. 1441 W. Elizabeth, Detroit. (313) 63-PIZZA or michigantrumbullpizza.com.
Grandma Bob’s: Another new pizzeria in Corktown, Grandma Bob’s has hearty Detroit-style deep dish with gourmet toppings like crushed pistachio and ricotta cheese. The hip spot also sells vegan ice cream and boozy shakes, plus a full bar. 2135 Michigan, Detroit. (313) 315-3177 or grandmabobs.com.
Pie Sci: At this creative pizzeria, the large pies are similar to Detroit-style, with cheese to the edge and a crispy crust. They offer a huge variety of specialty pizzas and toppings. Sometimes there’s red sauce on top and sometimes the laboratory concocts pies with ranch drizzle, honey, cherry chutney, hollandaise or tzatziki. 5163 Trumbull, Detroit. (313) 818-0290 or piescipizza.com.
PizzaPapalis: For years this has been to go-to for Chicago-style pizza in Detroit. In 2019, PizzaPapalis owners debuted their Detroit-style square pizza after co-owner Joe Sheena spent eight months researching dough recipes and techniques. The Greektown restaurant is temporarily closed. Visit pizzapapalis.com to order from the Detroit Rivertown, Troy, Taylor, Southfield, Bloomfield Hills or Toledo locations.
Palazzo Di Pizza: Fans of crusty, crispy corner slices will enjoy this authentic Detroit-style pizzeria that recently opened with specialty pizzas (chicken pesto, buffalo chicken, eggplant parmesan, etc.) as well as vegan and gluten-free options. 1222 E. 11 Mile, Royal Oak. (855) 233-7872 or palazzodipizza.com.
Belle Isle Pizza: This Jefferson Avenue pizzeria serves Detroit-style deep dish as well as round pies, with names that are nods to the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks. Try the vegetarian Eastern Market with mushrooms, green pepper, white onion and black olives, or build your own pie. 7869 E. Jefferson, Detroit. (313) 331-1222 or belleislepizza.com.
Amar Pizza: Their square deep-dish pizzas are similar to Detroit-style, but what Amar is really known for is great flavors, like their ghost pepper pizza, tandoori pizza and herb- and spice-marinated spinach pizza with feta cheese. 12195 Jos. Campau, Hamtramck. (313) 366-0980. 3728 Rochester, Troy. (248) 250-6266. amarpizza.com.
— to www.detroitnews.com