New York and Chicago pizza may be more famous, but behind the lesser-known Detroit-style is a complex narrative genuine and authentic to the city from which it came; the pizza’s history truly is a slice of Detroit, a recipe that includes immigration, industry and nearly 80 years of persistence and endurance. From its invention in 1946 to its win in the 2012 International Pizza Expo, Detroit-style has come a long way from being a local delicacy to now entering the mass market; today, Detroit-style can be found in Portland, Denver, Austin and even Dubai.

Buddy’s pizza and beer, a Michigan classic, will soon be available throughout the Midwest and beyond. Image  courtesy of Detroit Metro Times.

But first things first. What is it?

Although exact recipes differ, the recipe for Detroit-style pizza originated from the Italian immigrant community within the context of Detroit’s automobile industry. According to the pizza makers interviewed, Detroit-style features the rectangular shape and thick dough of Sicilian pizza, but with a Motor City twist: it’s baked in a blue steel pan like the ones that used to hold nuts and bolts in auto manufacturing plants. The pans are also able to withstand a higher temperature for baking. Usually this is done in an old-fashioned deck oven, which takes longer than a conveyor oven but produces a crust that is airy on the inside and crispy on the outside. The light, doughy crust is a major difference between Detroit-style and Chicago-style, which is thicker and heavier.

Most Detroit-style pizzas use a Wisconsin brick cheese blend — mild but high in fat content — that is spread all the way to the edges where it caramelizes against the pan. This results in crispy, lacy cheese on the edges of the crust. Unlike other varieties of pizza, Detroit-style layers the cheese directly on the dough, then toppings, and sauce on top, either in dollops or stripes known as “tire tracks.” Finally, the quintessential Detroit-style is topped with thick, small cup pepperoni, which curls up and chars in the oven. Other toppings have grown popular over time, like eggplant, Italian sausage, grilled chicken, onions, peppers and feta cheese.

The anatomy of a Detroit-style pizza. By Grace Jensen for Midstory. Photo image courtesy of Detroit Style Pizza Co.

Most customers at Detroit-area pizzerias are already familiar with the style, restaurant owners say. But in Detroit-style restaurants in other parts of the country — such as Denver, Colo., where Giles Flanagin runs Blue Pan Pizza — the unique style takes a little explaining.

“And that’s one of the things that’s honestly so fun about our job,” Flanagin said. “We get to explain what it is and why we love it.”

Origins

Detroit-style pizza was invented in 1946 by an Italian immigrant named Gus Guerra, although the exact details are controversial. What can be agreed upon is that Guerra invented the style while trying to add new menu items at his neighborhood bar, Buddy’s Rendezvous. He sold Buddy’s, however, and founded Cloverleaf Pizza in East Detroit (now Eastpointe), so both restaurants now claim to be the originators of Detroit-style pizza.

Gus Guerra. Image courtesy of Cloverleaf Pizza.

Guerra was inspired by the Sicilian-style pizza of his youth, which is also thick and rectangular in shape. 

“My understanding is Gus was trying to recreate the pizza that he grew up on,” Flanagin said. “It speaks very prominently to some of the fantastic things that people from other cultures bring to our country.”

Detroit has a strong Italian American presence, especially in East Detroit, but no Little Italy. Throughout history and the city’s financial decline, many Italian American families moved out of the downtown center and into the suburbs of Macomb County.

“Detroit’s kind of like that — people just built, abandoned where they were at, and moved forward. We don’t honor the history of the city like some other places do,” Greg Cummings, owner of Palazzo di Pizza in Royal Oak, Mich., said.

Cummings says that although there are fewer Italians in Oakland County — where Palazzo di Pizza is located — they still have Italian American locals come in, talk about the old neighborhoods and grab an Italian newspaper from the stand.

Guerra’s invention, however, also introduced the use of blue steel pans of the city’s automobile industry. Because they are able to withstand high temperatures, these pans were used to sanitize auto parts in auto manufacturing plants. But no one knows why Guerra chose to use this particular type of pan that day.

“Not even his son Jack knows,” Cummings said.

The pan, when used to bake dough covered in Wisconsin brick cheese at high heat, created a new kind of pizza crust.

“So what he did is he took one of these pans home one day, and he tried to make what was called a Sicilian pizza, and he cheesed it edge to edge, and bang!” Flanagin said. “We got this caramelization that had previously not happened, not been invented.” 

The unique style of Detroit pizza speaks to what the city looked like in 1946: an industrial, multicultural, working class city at the forefront of innovation in manufacturing and music.

“I’d say there’s a massive history and culture of Detroit-style pizza,” Nykolas Sulkiwskyj, owner of Loui’s Pizza in Hazel Park, MI, said. Sulkiwskyj’s grandfather was Louis Tourtois, a former Buddy’s chef who brought Detroit-style to Shield’s Pizzeria, and eventually founded Loui’s. 

“It’s a little more blue collar, it’s more fulfilling,” Cummings said. “If you’re hungry, eat a few slices — you’re full. Detroit was built on the middle class and blue collar workers here, so it’s probably a really good representation of the people that are here.”

From the original Buddy’s and Cloverleaf, more pizzerias broke off around the Detroit metro area, often founded by family members of the original makers. This led to what the Detroit Free Press called the “Great Detroit Pizza War” in 1978: Loui’s, Shield’s, Green Lantern and Como’s are a few of the names of pizzerias that opened in this competitive environment as Detroit-style gained popularity.

“Now we have a bunch of little Detroit-style pizza shops all over the state,” Sulkiwskyj said.

This Detroit Free Press clipping from 1978 called the pizzeria competition “the Great Detroit Pizza War,” featuring an image of Louis Tourtois, founder of Loui’s Pizza. Image courtesy of Newspapers.com.

World’s best: The 2012 International Pizza Expo

Today, Detroit-style pizza owes a large part of its national and international fame to one man: Shawn Randazzo.

“No one called it Detroit-style until Shawn,” George Johnson, owner of Assembly Brewing in Portland, said. “It was just ‘deep dish, [but not] Chicago style.’”

Randazzo started his career when he was 18 as a delivery driver for Cloverleaf Pizza. His family got into the business when Randazzo’s boss told him that he was going to sell the restaurant. Randazzo decided he wanted to buy Cloverleaf, but at his age couldn’t afford it. His mom Linda Michaels was looking for a new job and decided to partner with him to buy the restaurant. They called around to all the banks and finally got a loan for a third of the cost, Michaels re-financed her house for another third, and they negotiated with Randazzo’s boss for the final amount. And so in his early 20s, Randazzo became the co-owner of a branch of one of the original Detroit-style pizzerias.

In 2009, Randazzo and his mom traveled to Ohio, where he entered his first pizza competition in the Midwest division.

“Nobody had heard of Detroit-style pizza,” Michaels said. “They were joking, saying, ‘What is it, bullets in it?’ Well, it won first place. So from there, he got a passion — so did I, so did his wife, but especially him — for making Detroit-style pizza.”

But it was the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas that forever changed pizza history.

“For months, Shawn had been trying out recipes,” Michaels said. “We would test them and it would be, ‘too much salt, not airy enough, make it a little crispier.’ We ate so much pizza that I couldn’t eat pizza for a while. But he got the right recipe and we were like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”

Randazzo, who was still representing Cloverleaf Pizza, decided to use his own recipe when Cloverleaf didn’t send him theirs in time for the Expo. His recipe earned first place.

Shawn Randazzo shows off his International Pizza Expo first place award and the winning Detroit-style pizza. Image  courtesy of Edward Osinski, C&G Newspapers.

“And that’s how we became Detroit Style Pizza,” Michaels said.

Randazzo passed away from brain cancer in December 2020 at the age of 44. PMQ Pizza Magazine called him “a beloved evangelist for the Detroit style of pizza.”

Michaels describes her son as someone who always put kindness above all, helping others in pizza competitions even as they were competing against each other. 

Randazzo’s legacy lives on through the pizza makers he has trained worldwide. Before he passed, Randazzo visited Dubai, South Korea and Kuwait to show chefs there how to make Detroit-style pizza, and also hosted people from around the world in Detroit for pizza classes.

“He’s created probably tens of thousands of jobs,” Michaels said.

Across the country

Since the big win in 2012, Detroit-style pizzerias have popped up in big cities across the U.S. Detroit native Flanagin and world pizza champion Jeff  “Smoke” Smokevitch brought Detroit pizza to Denver in 2015.

“Both of us shared this passion of wanting to bring this specific style of pizza to Colorado because it’s where we live, and we love where we live, and we also love the food that we grew up on,” Flanagin said. “We wanted to bring a little slice of home, if you will, to our new home, and that’s Denver.”

Similarly, Johnson, also a Detroit native, said he missed the taste of home when he was across the country. 

“I remember going to the Pistons games in the ‘80s as a kid and if they scored a certain amount, you get 25 percent off at Buddy’s,” Johnson said. “It was this part of Detroit.”

Johnson’s Assembly Brewing opened in 2019.

“But by the time we opened up in Portland, there were already three other places doing it,” he said.

George Johnson, owner of Assembly Brewing in Portland, OR, incorporated Detroit culture into the restaurant through a Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry”-inspired mural. Image courtesy of Assembly Brewing.

Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, owner of Down North Pizza in Philadelphia, has never actually been to Detroit, but when he and childhood friend Chef Kurt Evans noticed the national trend, they thought it would be the perfect food to serve at their mission-based restaurant. Down North exclusively employs formerly incarcerated people and aims to end recidivism and tackle mass incarceration. Detroit-style pizza, wings and fries are the vehicle to achieve these goals.

“We thought it would be cool to bring something new to the neighborhood and open our eyes to this pizza that’s becoming a big thing across the United States,” Abdul-Hadi said.

Abdul-Hadi said the reception in Philadelphia has been great, with pizza continuously selling out and Philadelphia Magazine recently naming it one of the best pizzas in the city.

In addition to small local pizzerias, Detroit-style has made it to the mass market. Pizza Hut launched its “Detroit-style” in January 2021, according to CNBC. Although the fast food version is unpopular with the Detroit locals interviewed, it’s not altogether a bad thing.

“We’ve seen it explode,” Flanagin said. “I think when Pizza Hut came out with their Detroit style a few months ago, that’s one of the things that tells you that this is a big trend and lots of people are catching on to it.” 

He also said that since Blue Pan’s warm reception, more and more restaurant owners in the Denver area have inquired about Detroit-style, looking to add it to their menus.

Pizza Hut’s version of Detroit-style. Image courtesy of Washington Post.

Digiorno’s now has a frozen Detroit-style pan pizza, which Cummings called “horrible.”

“I don’t know how you can mass produce something like a Detroit-style. It’s all really handmade. We’re like the old school bakers. We make the dough every day, make the sauce every day,” he said. “You have to hand press every pan out. It’s a pain in the butt, but the reward of the pizza at the end is well worth it.”

Little Caesars, which is headquartered in Detroit, has also started to advertise “Detroit-style.” In 2015, Little Caesars offered a sale on its deep dish, calling it “Detroit-Style Deep! Deep! Dish pizza.” Although the item has been on the menu since 2013, Little Caesars has only recently begun to refer to it as Detroit-style, according to Business Insider.

Finally, Jet’s Pizza, also a national brand based in Detroit, serves deep dish pizza that it describes as the “world’s best Detroit-Style pizza.” Once again, pizzeria owners question its authenticity: Jet’s uses steel pans and spreads the cheese to the edges, but doesn’t put the sauce on top — a dealbreaker for Detroit-style purists.

Beyond the pizza

Most of all, pizzeria owners are glad to contribute to something positive coming out of Detroit.

“I think we’ve seen with the city going bankrupt and all that stuff happening in the early 2000s, Detroit has appeared in the news not under the best of circumstances,” Flanagin said. “In this particular case, you’re finally seeing some really awesome, positive news about something that’s out of Detroit, very unique and specific to where it was invented, and has a positive impact on other regions of the country.”

Although they are glad to see the national wave of popularity, the restaurants that helped create the style want to make sure they get credit. In a 2019 Eater article titled, “Detroit-Style Pizza Is Having a Moment. But Are Its Originators Getting Left Behind?” Buddy’s Pizza executives claim that Detroit-style pizza is “really Buddy’s style.” 

When Buddy’s decided to expand beyond Michigan in 2018, they found tough competition from the new Detroit-style pizzerias across the country. As Buddy’s chief brand officer told Eater, “Now everybody is wrapping themselves in Detroit.”

“It is and it isn’t [leaving the originators behind],” Michaels said. “Before Shawn, the originators wanted to keep it a secret. And Shawn was the opposite: let’s share it around the world — everybody should have it.”

Looking forward

For Detroit-style pizzerias, the attitude is that it will only go up from here.

“People always ask me, ‘Is this a trend?’” Flanagin said. “And I say, ‘No, it’s not a trend. It’s been around since 1946. And it’s here to stay.’”

“I’m looking forward to a little more recognition,” Sulkiwskyj said. “There’s tradition that runs deep in Detroit-style pizza and we just hope we get the same kind of love that all the other styles of pizza get.”

When asked about more well-known styles of pizza, such as New York thin crust or Chicago deep dish, Cummings scoffed.

“I’m not worried,” Cummings said. “I think we hold our own, and I say, ‘New York and Chicago — bring it on.’”

1 COMMENT

  1. Grace, this is an extraordinary article. It’s obvious you did loads of research on this.
    Thank you.

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