What Is Detroit Style Pizza and How Was It Invented?

What Is Detroit Style Pizza and How Was It Invented?

September 10, 2021

New York has foldable pizza. Chicago has deep-dish pizza.

Across the country, debates over the correct way to make a pizza are, uh, heating up. While NYC and Chicago argue over what makes a good slice, a third contender city has stolen the nation’s attention: Detroit.

Detroit has quietly been making some of the best pizza out there for decades, known for its Sicilian-style recipe and upside-down toppings. With a crunchy crust, signature square shape, and buttery cheese, Detroit-style pizza is finally getting the praise it deserves, and we’re ready to cheer for Motor City in the pizza wars.

Get the backstory on the unique recipe and where you can find the city’s finest slices. You can use our Detroit city street map to help you find your way. 

How is Detroit-Style Pizza Different? 

At first glance, Detroit-style pizza may look like a variation on deep-dish. The pizza is certainly as thick, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Let’s talk about some of the key distinguishing elements. 

Detroit-Style Pizza Is Sicilian 

Detroit-style pizza most resembles a Sicilian dish called sfincione, a focaccia bread topped with various cheeses, fish, and breadcrumbs. It’s thicker and doughier than your standard slice. 

Detroit-Style Pizza Is Square 

This is an important one. You might be looking at a Detroit pizza and thinking to yourself. Actually, it’s more rectangular. You’re right, but in Detroit, everyone calls this pizza-style square. Your geometry teacher may not like it, but that’s just how it’s done around here. The ‘square’ shape also means each pie will have four perfect slices: the corners. The crust is the real star of Detroit-style pizza, and the corners have the best crust per slice ratio. Try one of these pies, and you’ll be convinced all pizza should be square.

Detroit-Style Pizza Is Made Upside Down 

Usually, the pizza recipe goes a little something like this: dough, sauce, cheese, toppings. Detroit mixes that up a little bit by doing dough, toppings, cheese, then sauce. Yes, that’s right. The sauce goes on top. Keeping the sauce on top prevents the crust from getting soggy. What you lose in crisp toppings, you gain in a crunchy crust. 

Detroit-Style Pizza Gets an Assist From Wisconsin

Another key difference between regular slices and how they do it in Detroit? The cheese. Most pizzas call for mozzarella, but Detroit pizza makers get the goods from their neighbors across the lake. Wisconsin brick cheese is the de-facto dairy for Detroit-style pizza. It’s crumbled, not shredded, and it has just the right amount of fat to bubble up and crust over the edges of the square pie.

Suffice it to say, they’re doing things a little differently over in Detroit, and our stomachs are thankful. 

The History of Detroit-Style Pizza 

You can find Detroit-style pizza all over the country these days, and most pizzerias in Motown serve it. With that many cooks in the kitchen, you may expect it to be difficult to track down the original source of the recipe. Thankfully, we know exactly where it came from: Buddy’s.

In 1946, Gus Guerra, owner, and operator of Buddy’s Rendezvous, was looking for a menu tune-up. He opened Buddy’s doors over a decade earlier, initially as a speakeasy bar — prohibition wasn’t about to stop Gus — and then expanded the place into a restaurant. It was a small neighborhood spot that was struggling to push through.

Considering Detroit’s biggest export besides pizza, it’s no wonder where he looked for inspiration. Gus came into a few utility trays from the local Ford factory that he thought would work well for baking Sicilian pizzas through a friend. In case you’re nervous about food safety — the trays were unused.

The next part of the story gets a little blurry, so bear with us. Depending on who you ask, this is what happened next. Either Gus’ wife, Anna, shared with him her mother’s recipe for Sicilian pizza dough, or a mysterious Sicilian man named Dominic showed up and showed Gus “the Sicilian way.” It’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure backstory. 

Either way, the result was a smash hit. Buddy’s expanded into eleven locations throughout Detroit. On 6 Mile and Conant, the original is still open and looks much like it did back in the early days, but each new Buddy’s location seems to get swankier than the last.

Buddy’s recipe for pizza caught on as well, with neighboring bar Shield's observing and recreating their own take on the signature dish. Before long, every pizzeria in Detroit was making some version of Buddy’s pizza, and a new style took form in Motor City.

The Best Spots for Pizza in Detroit 

If you’re drooling already, we can’t blame you. All this research on Detroit pizza has certainly worked up our appetite. So now the question is, where does one purchase a corner slice of heaven? Well, if you’re so lucky to spend some time in Detroit, here are some of the best spots for the city’s finest delicacy. 

Buddy’s 

You didn’t think we’d spend all that time on Buddy’s and not recommend it, do you? Even though the restaurant has passed hands a few times, the pizza served to you at Buddy’s is as good, if not better, than it was back in the day. 

Shield’s 

Like Buddy’s, Shield’s has been a Detroit staple for nearly a hundred years. They opened their doors in 1937 and have been perfecting their pizza ever since. This may be a controversial take, but the secret red sauce at Shield’s may actually be the city’s finest. You didn’t hear it from us.

Loui’s Pizza 

 Founded by local legend Louis Tourtois, Loui’s is a hardcore Detroit spot that refuses to give in to the temptation to expand. Tourtois was originally the chef at Buddy’s, then Shield’s, and he helped build each joint into the icons we know now. At Loui’s, Chef Louis had the chance to make something on his own, and the result is a classic, no-frills pizza place that has barely changed since serving up their first slice in 1977. The walls are lined in Chianti bottles and strings of Christmas lights. 

Cloverleaf Pizza 

You can find pizza on every corner in Detroit, but the business is surprisingly small. The last place you should definitely check out is Cloverleaf Pizza, which was actually created by Buddy’s founder, Gus Guerra. After selling Buddy’s in 1953, Gus opened up Cloverleaf in search of new restaurant glory and an Irish clientele. He expanded on Buddy’s famous recipe for pizza — technically his own — and Cloverleaf established itself as an expert pizza thrower within a few years. 

The truth is you can’t go wrong looking for pizza in Detroit. Well, except that is if you stop by Little Caesars. Sure, they may be headquartered in Motor Town but look around you! You’ve got the best Detroit-style pizza in the world at your fingertips. Reach higher.

Ready To Get Down and Chow Down? 

We have to give it to you, Detroit. You’re doing something fundamentally different with your ‘za, and all that tradition-breaking has paid off. We’re so excited the country’s finally paying attention to what makes Detroit-style pizza so tasty.

Do you love Motor Town? Check out our collection of t-shirts and merch, including tees that celebrate gone-but-not-forgotten local sports. This Detroit-style pizza tee is calling your name.

 

Sources:

Detroit-Style Pizza: The Definitive Guide | Eater

A History of Detroit-Style Pizza, the Superior Deep Dish | Thrillist

Where to Eat Pizza in Detroit Right Now | Food & Wine


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