Detroit-Style Pizza: What You Need to Know

Detroit style pizza
Detroit style pizza.

If you're tired of the same old circular pizza, try a Detroit-style pizza. One of the nine most popular types of pizza in the United States, Detroit offers its own version of the iconic dish served up as a square rather than a circle.

However, it's not just the squareness of the pizza that makes it Detroit-style. On the contrary, this particular variety of pizza has a rich history in the city, dating back to the auto industry boom in Detroit, which is responsible for the iconic blue steel pans Detroit-style pizzas are baked on.

The Essential Elements of a Detroit-Style Pizza

There are four essential elements of a Detroit style pizza that separates it from the other varieties:

  1. It must be "square."
  2. The pizza must be baked in industrial blue steel pans.
  3. The spongy dough is twice baked leading to a crunchy yet chewy crust. 
  4. The pizza must include brick cheese.

While Detroit-style pizzas are typically rectangular in shape, locals still call them square pizzas. The important part of the equation, though, is the method of cooking up pizza on industrial blue steel pans, which were originally used to hold auto parts. Their thick metal coating also results in the crunchiness of the pizza crust. 

The pans are called "blue steel" because the steel has a slight bluish tint when new, and these pans were such an integral part of the Detroit pizza making process that the closure of the main supplier resulted in Detroit pizza chains scrambling. Today, Detroit blue steel pizza pans are made by a company in Michigan. 

Another element that makes Detroit-style pizza unique is its inclusion of brick cheese, which is a mild cheese, originally made in Wisconsin, that is currently one of Wisconsin's most famous cheeses. The cheese is cultured at a higher temperature than cheddar cheese, pressed under one regular building brick, and then cut into a brick shaped log. Because of this higher temperature, the cheese has a mild and sweet taste when young but, as it ages, it produces a much sharper finish. 

How to Eat It and What It Tastes Like

Detroit-style pizzas are eaten with your hands or with a fork or a knife. While New Yorkers adamantly state that pizza must be eaten by hand and folded over, though, the Detroit style pizza's thickness lends itself to utensils instead. However, you don't have to be embarrassed to ask for a fork in Michigan when chowing down on a Detroit-style pizza.

One thing you might wonder when ordering a Detroit style pizza is where the pepperoni is located. Most Detroit pizzerias layer the pepperoni under the sauce and cheese, meaning that the pepperoni doesn't get the salty crispiness of a New York style slice. Additionally, some may be surprised to find that the dough is more similar to foccacia dough or a Sicilian style crust than New York-style pizza.

The bottom of a slice is thicker than a New York style crust but the edges all the way around should be crispy and golden brown (almost verging on dark brown). Unlike a circular pizza, the toppings go all the way to the edge of the pizza, leaving a minimal crust, meaning that every bite has cheese and sauce on it. 

The History of Detroit Style Pizza

Unlike the Neapolitan or the New York style pizza, where we don't know much about the inventor of the style of pizza, Detroit style pizza has a young history and a definite inventor. 

The father of Detroit style pizza is Gus Guerra. In 1946, Gus Guerra converted his former Prohibition-era speakeasy named Buddy's Rendezvous into a full restaurant. Guerra decided to use an old Sicilian-style pizza recipe, possibly from his mother, and the legend goes that he baked the pizza in a parts pan used by Detroit's automotive manufacturers. As a result, Detroit-style pizza was born. 

Buddy's Rendezvous is still today the most famous place in Detroit to eat the city's square pizza, though Guerra sold Buddy's Rendezvous a mere seven years after inventing the pizza. Today, Buddy's has 16 locations around Detroit and is consistently named one of the top places in Michigan to eat pizza.

Where to Eat Detroit Style Pizza

While there are many Detroit style pizza locations across the country, there are a few iconic spots that serve the Motor City's famous food:

  • Buddy's Rendezvous (now Buddy's Pizza): Of course, Buddy's, the home of the Detroit style pizza, has to make the list. Founded in 1946, in 2016, the restaurant celebrated its 70th anniversary. With 16 locations in the Motor City, it's still going strong. *Gluten-free options available.
  • Cloverleaf: When Gus Guerra sold Buddy's Rendezvous in 1953, he went across town to open up Cloverleaf in the East Pointe suburb. Cloverleaf uses an open-air oven and Gus's original recipe. Interestingly, while Cloverleaf has the original recipe, critics prefer Buddy's pizza to that of Cloverleaf. *Gluten-free options available.
  • Loui's Pizza: One of the most popular spots to get a solid Detroit slice, this pizza loads up on the cheese, meaning that it's hefty, filling, and absolutely delicious. The chef-owner, Louis Tourtois, once worked at Buddy's Rendezvous but was shut out from owning that restaurant by another buyer, and then worked at Shield's, but was barred from entering the restaurant by a new owner. Not one to give up, he opened his own place; now, in its third-generation, Loui's in Hazel Park stubbornly remains the restaurant's single location with a focus on quality and excellent pizza. Expect very long lines.
  • Shield's: Shield's began serving pizza when Louis Tourtois offered to make pizza for their bar guests in exchange for kitchen space. The deal worked until Louis was locked out of the kitchen by the new owners who decided to replicate Louis' recipe. It is extremely heavy with loads of cheese and toppings, but regulars love the classic Detroit taste.

Try Detroit Style Not In Detroit

Not in Detroit but craving some of the square stuff? No worries. We've got you covered.

  • Emmy Squared, Brooklyn, New York: Emily and Matt Hyland of the popular Emily Pizza, which Eater describes as "one of those irritating places that does everything well," have opened Emmy Squared, which will concentrate on the square Detroit style pizza. 
  • Tony's Coal Fired, San Francisco, California: Owned by Tony Gemignani, literally the author of the Pizza Bible, Tony's Coal Fired occasionally serves up Detroit style pizza. 
  • Northside Nathan's, Las Vegas, Nevada: This Las Vegas joint tries to bring a bit of Michigan to Sin City with plenty of Michigan paraphernalia and authentic Detroit style square slices. Try the Works, which combines pepperoni, sausage, bacon, and meatball onto a single pizza.
  • Via313, Austin, Texas: Zane and Brandon Hunt grew up on Detroit pizza at the likes of Buddy's, Cloverleaf, and Loui's. Nostalgic for the Detroit square slice, they opened up Via 313 in Austin, which serves up genuine Detroit style pizzas, with smoked pepperoni under the cheese. The restaurant opened to rave reviews, making Eater's list of Hottest Pizzerias in America in 2013
  • Pi-Squared Pizza, Hendersonville, North Carolina: Pi-Squared Pizza is one of the few Detroit style pizza shops not owned by a Michigander. Instead, owner Karen Rampey decided to opt for Detroit style at her shop in tiny Hendersonville because there were already New York and Chicago style pizzerias in the area. She wanted to offer something different and her restaurant has been a success.

Not Detroit Style but From Michigan Anyway

Many don't realize that two of the country's most famous pizza chains got their start in Michigan: Domino's Pizza and Little Caesars.

Domino's Pizza was founded by brothers Tom and Jim Monaghan in 1960. The brothers purchased a small pizza restaurant called DomiNick's in Ypsilanti, Michigan. After six months, James traded his half of the business to Tom for the Volkswagen Beetle they used for deliveries. Within 5 years, Tom had purchased two additional pizzerias and changed the name of the company to Domino's. As of 2018, Domino's is the world's largest chain and has more than 14,000 pizza locations across the world. 

Though not as large as Domino's, Little Caesars pizza chain is fondly remembered in college towns. Mike and Marian Ilitch founded Little Caesars in Garden City, Michigan, in 1959. Today, Little Caesars is the largest carry-out-only pizza chain in the world. Little Caesars is also attempting to spread the Detroit pizza love to the masses, by introducing its DEEP! DEEP! Dish pizza across the country.