Wes Pikula, chief brand officer at Buddy’s Pizza, where Detroit pies were born, tells the story this way: Tool and die makers used to visit Buddy’s back in the 1940s, when the place was known as Buddy’s Rendezvous and owned by Gus Guerra. The owner wanted to create his own version of sfincione, a square slice commonly sold on the streets of Palermo. The tool-and-die crew suggested they might have the perfect pans to do the job. “We got these kind of square metal trays that we use for nuts and bolts, for scrap pieces. Why don’t we bring those in. You try them,” Pikula recalls the guys saying. “They put dough in them and of course the rest is history.”
This is where my brain does a needle scratch. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, surrounded by creature comforts and all the kitchen equipment I can buy with a single click in my air-conditioned office. I mean, it’s true: I’ve never had to use a shopping cart as a grill grate over an open fire built from the wood of a fallen oak tree. Still, I can’t imagine using a pan, one that might have collected grease or metal shavings, to bake pizza. My brain prefers to write off the story as apocryphal.
Seasoned steel pans are, of course, essential for Detroit pizza to achieve the right color, texture and that all-important frico edge in which the Wisconsin brick cheese melts, crisps and rises from the outer crust, like stalagmites. Mercifully, pizza-makers don’t have to call Chrysler to find steel pans. They can order perfectly good ones from, say, Lloyd Pans, which many do. But I was curious: Do my favorite Detroit pizza-makers in the D.C. area believe the origin story? Or maybe it strikes them, like me, as more legend than fact, a Motor City myth that’s too good to be true?
“I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true and it’s always more fun to believe the lore,” noted Chris Powers, a co-owner at Ivy and Coney, the Shaw home away from home for Chicago and Detroit expats. “The story behind pasties is that miners in the Upper Peninsula would cook them on a shovel over their lanterns so maybe there’s just something about cooking with the tools of your trade in Michigan.”
Come to think of it, maybe these kind of questions are better discussed, with fellow obsessives, over a superb specimen of Detroit pizza, preferably a classic cheese or a pepperoni. Allow me to direct you to a few of my go-to joints, where you can grab a pie and start your own argument about the origins of an American original.
The pepperoni at Ivy and Coney
Powers grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, arguing with his parents over what pizza to eat. His folks preferred New York-style rounds. Powers was partial to Buddy’s, which had a location in Auburn Hills. He never called it “Detroit pizza.” “It was just pizza,” Powers recalls. “I actually didn’t hear the term ‘Detroit pizza’ until I moved here. Back home, it was just kind of like, ‘Do you want round or square?’”
When Powers and his friend, Andrew Kozlowski, started messing with Detroit pizza — for a televised game between the Packers and Lions at Ivy and Coney before the pandemic — the wannabe pie-makers had no greater ambition than to mimic the slices from Buddy’s. These days, Powers and Kozlowski take some liberties: Unlike the cooks back in Detroit, the guys simmer their tomato sauce only briefly, allowing their garlic-and-herb-infused sauce to thicken during the actual bake.
The guys also refuse to par-bake their dough, regardless of how difficult that makes life inside the tiny Ivy and Coney kitchen. They scatter Wisconsin brick cheese around the edges of their focaccia-style dough, then cover the rest of the surface with a mozzarella blend. The Ezzo brand pepperoni are sprinkled on top the cheese and sauce, not smuggled underneath the layers as with the Buddy’s original. Once taken out of the 500-degree oven, the pizza is placed on a wire rack, plated and dusted with grated Parmesan.
With this pie, you can’t begin to tell where the cheese ends and the crust begins along the outer edges. The two elements have melded into one. A slice crackles under tooth, before giving way to the soft, airy crumb of the base bread. The Parmesan adds an element of refinement to a pizza that can land like a brick through a window. This, in short, is a terrific interpretation of a legendary pie.
$28 at Ivy and Coney, 1537 7th St. NW. 202-670-9489. ivyandconey.com.
The UPC Classic at Underground Pizza Co.
Evan Weinstein was living in Annapolis when the pandemic hit. His events business had all but dried up. To break up the monotony of his new home-bound life, Weinstein would sometimes drive to Washington to pick up Detroit pizza from Emmy Squared. “I did it like three or four times, and I was like, ‘I can probably do this myself,’” Weinstein remembers.
You can probably guess where this story goes from there: Weinstein started experimenting with recipes. He posted photos of his handiwork on social media. Friends started buying his pies by the dozens. Weinstein did pop-ups and a ghost kitchen. He ultimately launched a whole new business, Underground Pizza Co., now with several locations, proving that a pandemic can’t keep a good entrepreneur down.
Weinstein has no connection to Detroit, other than his affection for the Motor City’s signature pizza. Perhaps this explains why he approaches the pies less like a traditionalist and more like a chef. He uses Stanislaus tomatoes from California. He buys Corto olive oil, a brand beloved by chefs. He cold-ferments his dough for five to seven days — a period of time utterly foreign to most Detroit pizza-makers — at a production facility and restaurant in Baltimore before shipping the dough to other UPC locations. He includes carrots in his pizza sauce to add a natural sweetness.
Weinstein is also something of a perfectionist. When I’ve posted videos of his pizzas on my Instagram account, he’s been the first to point out their shortcomings via direct message. Despite Weinstein’s occasional protestations, his cheese pie, dubbed the UPC Classic, is the best way to experience his craft: Twin stripes of cooked-down sauce are ladled over a mixture of melted mozzarella and Wisconsin brick cheese, all atop bread that has developed its flavors over many days. There’s even a dusting of Parmesan at the end for an umami boost. It may not be perfect, but it’s really close.
Weinstein on the Detroit pizza origin story: “Yes, I think they were just salvaged pans.”
$22 for a full, $14 for half, at all Underground Pizza Co. 30 Market Place, Baltimore, Md. 28 Allegheny Ave., Towson, Md.. 8235 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md. undergroundpizza.co.
The OG pepperoni at Red Light Bar and Detroit Pizza
A native of Traverse City, Mich., Naomi Gallego built her reputation as a pastry chef in Washington, frequently stretching the boundaries of her edible art form at restaurants such as Blue Duck Tavern, PS7’s and Vidalia, the latter two spots now just distant memories. But when Gallego started making Detroit pizza, at Red Light in Logan Circle before the pandemic, she didn’t want to mess with tradition, or disrespect the folks who embraced the dish from the start. “This was made as a working-class food for working-class people,” Gallego says. “It shouldn’t be out of touch with what it was supposed to be. I’m just sort of old school like that.”
Gallego’s OG pepperoni is, as the name implies, pretty much old school. Her dough is little more than flour, water, salt and yeast (though she does include a poolish starter to add a touch more flavor), which Gallego cold-ferments for a day. She simmers her tomato sauce for an hour, before blending it and applying two thick stripes after the pie emerges from the oven. She prefers pepperoni that cups over those that lie flat, but Gallego has opted for the latter, lest customers think the charred rims of her spicy salami cups are a kitchen mistake (which of course some do). She splits the difference on the placement of the pepperoni: She doesn’t tuck them under her brick-cheese blend, but places them between layers of melted curds.
Her finished pie is so unassuming. It looks like something you could make with a loaf of crusty bread, pizza sauce and a ton of cheese. Its craft is virtually invisible to the eye. It’s only when you bite into the OG pepperoni that you appreciate its exquisite architecture: the crackle of its frico edge, the soft landing of its bread, the minor chile-flake kick of its thickened sauce and how it locks into place with the semi-concealed pepperoni.
This is a Detroit pizza that only a master of the craft can make.
Gallego on the Detroit pizza origin story: The story could be true, Gallego says. But she offers an alternative theory: Sheet metal was so abundant in Detroit that manufacturers used it to both build cars and create cookware. “They had it in such large supplies, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t use that sheet metal for a great many things in Detroit at that time.”
$21 at Red Light Bar and Detroit Pizza. 1401 R St. NW. 202-234-0400. redlightpizzabar.com.
The OG at Motown Square Pizza
For two summers after high school, Paulos Belay worked at Buddy’s in Farmington Hills, Mich., where he moved his way up from dishwasher to prep cook. He remembers processing ungodly amounts of Wisconsin brick cheese. “I only worked there because it was a cool spot to work with all your friends from high school,” says Belay, a native Detroiter, born to a mother from Mississippi and a father from Ethiopia. “It was just kind of a rite of passage.”
His brief time at Buddy’s Pizza gave him insights into the Detroit style, which came in handy after the chef and his wife moved to Washington in 2018. Like countless expats who long for the food of their hometown, Belay began making his own. His Detroit pizza hobby soon turned into a side hustle, dubbed Motown Square, which then turned into a weekend pop-up at Mess Hall, the culinary incubator in Edgewood. The trained chef now has a carryout in Shaw.
As with many chefs who start playing with pizza, Belay couldn’t help but experiment with ingredients and techniques. He may have started with Wisconsin brick cheese, but he now relies on a brick-less blend of mozzarella, smoked mozzarella and white cheddar. “It tastes insane, and I mean that in a good way,” Belay says.
Because of the convection oven at Motown, Belay has to par-bake his pies or else they don’t cook properly. But he’s developed a technique that allows his cheese to meld seamlessly into the crust, in ways that par-baked Detroit pies rarely do. He also applies his sauce before the pizza goes into the oven. He likes how the sauce integrates into the whole, rather than riding along the pie’s surface, like just another topping.
I think this is one reason I adore the OG: You not only get an a superb interpretation of Detroit pizza, but you get to see how one chef pursues flavor, balance and gracefulness in a dish that often coasts on its Rust Belt largess.
Belay on the Detroit pizza origin story: “I’m not a 100 percent sure” about it, he says. But the pans at Buddy’s, he adds, look slightly different from others out there: “I tried purchasing a pan” from Buddy’s “awhile back and was met with a firm no.”
$7.50 for two slices, $14 for four and $26 for eight at Motown Square, 1819 7th St. NW, 202-507-9135; motownsquaredc.com.
POST AUTHOR: Tim Carman