How Detroit-Style Pizza Took Over America
A local tradition becomes a national sensation.
Detroit-style pizza is everywhere. It feels like a new square slice shop opens every day, often with kitschy names like "Lions, Tigers, and Squares" or "Square Pie Guys." Although the Detroit-style trend has been infiltrating American cities for years, we've entered a new phase, one in which the regional tradition has garnered such a massive following that nearly everyone wants a piece of the pie.
There was a breaking point this January. Pizza Hut launched its own take on Detroit-style, identifying a trend as it became the opposite of trendy; it had become the status quo.
The chain had been tracking the rise of Detroit-style pizza for years before committing to recipe testing. After playing with more than 500 versions over the course of a year, they decided on four flavors: Detroit Double Pepperoni, Detroit Double Cheesy, Detroit Meaty Deluxe, and Detroit Supremo. "Nearly a quarter of Detroit-style pizza purchases were from new customers," a Pizza Hut spokesperson said. "We knew we were tapping into a growing pizza trend and the numbers validate that."
But what is it about Detroit-style pizza that has inspired such widespread fervor, and why now? After all, the genre has been around for 75 years, originally created at Detroit institution Buddy's Pizza in 1946. Perhaps it has something to do with approachability. To make a great Detroit-style pizza, you don't need to know how to stretch and flip. The dough is baked inside of a deep, rectangular pan—a tradition started by Buddy's founder Gus Guerra, who made pizza in the blue steel pans that held nuts and bolts at local automotive plants.
Even more importantly, to make a great Detroit-style pizza, you don't need a fancy pizza oven. Aaron Lindell, owner of Quarter Sheets Pizza Club in Los Angeles, said, "My background in pizza-making is mostly wood-fired Neapolitan style, which I always felt was an exercise in restraint and a lot about the oven. I've made Detroit-style pizza in half a dozen different ovens all with very similar results."
In other words, Detroit-style pizza can be baked in any oven, making it less finicky than Neapolitan-adjacent styles and made more easily from scratch.
For the past decade or so, Detroit-style pizza places have been popping up outside of Detroit, from VIA 313 in Austin to Blue Pan Pizza in Denver. In 2016, the folks behind New York City's Pizza Loves Emily opened a sister spot in Brooklyn, Emmy Squared, focused on Detroit-style pies. Emmy Squared quickly gained a cult following, and the brand has since grown to eight locations across New York City, Nashville, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Louisville. In 2018, Buddy's itself announced plans to expand outside of Michigan, and in December 2020, Buddy's started partnering with Goldbelly to ship their iconic pizzas nationwide.
According to Lindell, Detroit-style pizza is particularly well suited for takeout and delivery. "It holds well, it reheats well, and it travels easily," he said. Throughout the past year, as more people have relied upon carry-out, these characteristics propelled the popularity of Detroit-style even further.
Functionality aside, there's a kind of nostalgia to Detroit-style pizza that makes people feel at home. That's exactly why entrepreneur Muhammed Abdul-Hadi wanted to serve Detroit-style at Down North Pizza in Philadelphia. "People in the neighborhood could relate to a square-style pizza," Abdul-Hadi said. "When your mom brought home that white box from Ellio's Pizza you knew it was a good day. We used to pop that in the toaster oven and that was the highlight of Friday night dinner."
Down North is a community-based pizzeria that employs formerly incarcerated individuals and provides them with culinary training and an opportunity to transition back into the workforce. Abdul-Hadi runs the place with his childhood best friend, chef Kurt Evans. They wanted to build something that could be a vehicle for conversations about ending mass incarceration.
"Since this is a controversial topic, we wanted to be able to reach the masses in our messaging," he said. "Who doesn't love pizza?" Detroit-style has, indeed, proven to be a unifier at Down North, with Philadelphians traversing the city for a slice.
There's a sense of familiarity baked into the pies at Down North, but for Noah Sandoval, a 2017 Food & Wine Best New Chef who opened Pizza Friendly Pizza in Chicago last summer, it was the novelty of a square-shaped pizza that first drew him in.
"I'm from Virginia and can't remember hearing about any of those styles," Sandoval said, referring to Detroit-style and its square-cut cousins, Sicilian and grandma pies. At Pizza Friendly Pizza, Sandoval is making Sicilian pizza, and for him, the difference is in the texture of the crust. While Detroit-style has a crust that's caramelized, lacquered with baked cheese, Sandoval's Sicilian slices leave the outermost crust bare—a crunchy finish to the topping-loaded middle.
In New York, chef Dan Kluger is churning out Detroit-style's other cousin, grandma-style. At his restaurant Loring Place, Kluger, a 2012 Food & Wine Best New Chef, pays homage to the thinner-crust—though still square-shaped—staple of Long Island. Grandma-style is said to have been named for Italian-American grandmothers who tried to recreate Sicilian pies after they immigrated to the U.S. In late 2020, Kluger opened his to-go pizza-only concept, Washington Squares, where he sells 9x13-inch grandma-style pizzas. Some of Kluger's pies nod to Detroit-style with crackly, cheesy crusts, but when it comes to true Detroit-style, Emmy Squared has it down to a science.
Emmy Squared serves its pizzas on a metal cooling rack set above an 8x10-inch baking sheet, a way to remind diners that this isn't just pizza, this is pan pizza, complete with Detroit-style's signature frico crust. Tradition is abandoned when it comes to the toppings, like in the case of the Nashville Hot Chicken pizza, which is a white pizza topped with Nashville hot chicken, Alabama white sauce, and chopped pickles. It's what co-founder Emily Hyland calls "a fun way of merging two traditions."
At his newly-opened Pizza & Parm Shop in Chicago, chef Bill Kim also approaches Detroit-style pizza as a blank canvas. There's one version that's topped with double-smoked pork and pineapple; another has Korean BBQ ground beef and kimchi. All of the offerings speak, in some way, to Kim's childhood; having immigrated from Seoul at age 7, he said, "different cultures came together through food."
For Lindell, the owner of Quarter Sheets, Detroit-style as a label is even more relaxed. He refers to his pizza as "Glendale's #1 least authentic Detroit-style pizza." While the claim is intended to be funny and lighthearted, it's also a way for Lindell to do his own thing. "By advertising inauthenticity I'm liberated from tradition," he said.
There are certain traditions that Lindell has kept, like making sure every pie has a fried cheese crust, a crispy, buttery bottom, and a pillowy crumb, but he's more interested in creativity than purity. "Why be bound by authenticity when I live in California and have access to so many incredible products?"
There's a specific formula to Buddy's original Detroit-style pizza: pepperoni sprinkled right on top of the dough, a layer of crumbled Wisconsin brick cheese, and tomato sauce swiped across the top, resembling racing stripes in a nod to Motor City. But today's landscape of Detroit-style pizza is made up of pies as innovative and inventive as Buddy's itself once was, and that's the beauty of the Detroit-style pizza renaissance: It has enabled pizza-makers and pizza-eaters alike to make the square-cut slice their own.