When Ryan and Christina Siu found a space in Mission Bay for their quick-service pizza restaurant, Pizza Squared, they wondered how they could stand out in the pizza saturated Bay Area market. “Everyone’s doing wood fire and Neapolitan style,” says Ryan Siu. But as SF natives, he and Christina had fond memories of Golden Boy, whose unique, Sicilian-inspired square slices, essentially focaccia with pizza toppings, have satisfied a hungry, frequently hammered North Beach clientele since 1978.
The Sius planned to do something similar — but when they traveled to a pizza industry conference in March 2017, the Las Vegas Pizza Expo, something new was in the air: Detroit-style pizza, a rectangular pie (frequently described as square) made from puffy Sicilian-style dough, with pan-crisped edges encrusted in caramelized cheese and sauce slathered on top.
In fact, the style had been the talk of the expo since 2012, when pizzaiolo Shawn Randazzo, who now runs the Detroit Style Pizza Company, won the International Pizza Challenge with a style that was largely unheard of: Detroit pizza.
“People were like, what the hell is this,” recalls Tony Gemignani, the decorated Bay Area pizzaiolo and restaurateur. “Nobody had ever competed with it.”
After purchasing a set of Detroit-style pans, the Sius opened Pizza Squared last year, offering both Sicilian and Detroit-style pizzas. Slices of Detroit-style pepperoni are by far the restaurant’s best seller, says Siu. In San Francisco — where round, thin-crust Neapolitan pizza has long been the gold standard — it’s suddenly hip to be square.
Several years ago, Eater Detroit editor Brenna Houck set a google alert for “Detroit-style pizza.” Now, as more and more businesses advertise their Detroit-style offerings, it yields results every day.
“Detroit-style pizza is really having its moment across the US, from Emmy Squared in New York to Austin’s Via 313,” says Houck. “A lot of new pizzerias are embracing the thicker, lighter square pies.”
In her definitive guide to the style, Houck follows its origins to Buddy’s, a bar and restaurant which produced the original Detroit pizza in 1946. According to Buddy’s vice president of operations Wesley Pikula, the bar and restaurant borrowed industrial blue steel pans used by Motor City’s many auto workers, removing their silicon coating and stuffing them with a Sicilian pizza dough.
“When you eat it, the flavor just pops,” says Gemignani, who was the first to offer Detroit pizza in San Francisco at his restaurants in 2012. “The caramelized cheese that you’re chiseling out of that pan — it’s that burnt mac and cheese taste you had as a kid growing up, you just wanna keep eating it and eating it.”
And don’t tell Gemignani that this style is a flash in the pan. “I love it, and it’s here to stay. It’s not a fad.”
As fans of Buddy’s from beyond Detroit sought to recreate the style, they ran into two problems: Getting the right pans, and sourcing Wisconsin brick cheese, the topping of choice at Buddy’s and beyond, which once cost as much to ship to San Francisco as Mozzarella di Bufala, Gemignani says.
Meanwhile, many of the original pan makers have closed up shop. Enterprising newcomers, like Randazzo’s company, have stepped in to fill the void, as have larger producers. In 2014, Washington-based industrial pan maker Lloyd introduced Detroit style pans in 8” by 10” and 10” by 14” sizes. According to Robert Johnson, Lloyd’s marketing manager, they’ve doubled in popularity every year since.
Michael Malyniwsky, the chef at Cellarmaker Brewing Co.’s soon-to-open brewpub and pizza restaurant, Cellarmaker House of Pizza, say’s he’s owned every pizza pan Lloyd has ever made. At the new brewpub, he’ll be making exclusively square pies, and to do so, Malyniwksy even commissioned Lloyd for 80 custom pans. They’re exactly square, rather than rectangular.
Cellarmaker co-founder Connor Casey doesn’t consider himself a trend chaser: He just wanted his new brewpub to have great food to accompany its beer. To him, it’s funny that Detroit style is suddenly “the hazy IPA of pizza,” — a reference to the very trendy beer style.
But plenty of San Francisco consumers are more than happy to chase trends. “People have an appetite in SF for what’s new, and everybody in the pizza world is going crazy for square” says Marc Schechter, who runs the increasingly popular Detroit-style pizza pop-up Square Pie Guys with partner Danny Stoller.
Schechter earned his pizza stripes at kitchens like Pizzeria Delfina and PizzaHacker. He grew a following for his earlier pizza pop-ups, which served traditional Neapolitan round pies alongside occasional square pies, using the cheeky personal Instagram account @pizzaman_420.
After his square pies struck a particular chord, Schechter ditched the round stuff and went all in on the Detroit style, joining forces with Stoller, a pizza enthusiast and developer at a hospitality firm. Now, Square Pie Guys appear on Thursdays and Fridays at Vinyl, a Divisadero cafe and wine bar that incubated Pizzahacker in its pop up days, before it became a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Square Pie Guys’ goal: To eventually open a shop of their own.
While Detroit Style pies can achieve the size of a Chicago deep dish (and also wear their sauce on top of their cheese), Stoller and Schechter emphasize that their pizzas are considerably lighter that deep dish, made from an airy, high-hydration dough.
“For as big and scary it looks, it’s pretty approachable, even on a Tuesday night after yoga class,” says Stoller. In the Bay Area market, where half the population attends Tuesday night yoga, that’s certainly appealing.
And with a sturdy structure rather than a paper-thin crust, Detroit style pies can support more toppings. Square Pie Guys serves options like basic cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, Chris Bianco’s tomatoes, parmesan, and basil) and more elaborate creations like a “mean green sausage machine” (mozzarella, ricotta cream sauce, fennel sausage, charred broccoli, garlic red pepper flakes, and a cheddar cheese edge with a drizzle of Mike’s Hot Honey on top).
There are, of course, objections from Detroit traditionalists, says Schechter. “We’re calling it Detroit style, but a lot of people on Instagram are saying, ‘Hey, I’m a 30-year Michigander — do you use Wisconsin brick cheese?’”
Gemignani would fall in that group. At Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, he only uses Wisconsin brick mozzarella for his Detroit pizza. “It’s like a pastrami on rye,” says Gemignani. “If I have it in New York, and I put Monterey Jack on it, I say ‘it’s good, but it’s not Swiss.”
For Cellarmaker’s new chef, being traditional is beside the point. Detroit is the framework, “but obviously, we’re in California,” says Malyniwsky, “so we’re using everything we have in California.”
That means the best rotating toppings he can find at local farmers markets, and a cheese mix that includes no Wisconsin brick cheese but local Bay Area Toma, “the king of all cheeses.”
At Lloyd pans, Johnson has heard criticism, too. “There’s a lot of argument about doing it the original way,” he says. “It has to be in these types of pans, and use this type of cheese.” In his view, Lloyd’s pre-seasoned pans are an improvement on the Detroit original, which need to build their own patina.
“I’ve watched people try to chisel a Detroit [pizza] out of a bare pan... it’s not pretty. We’re trying to buck the system. If you can improve on the taste of a pizza using the traditional source, more power to you.”
Another Bay Area pizza tinkerer, Pizzahacker’s Jeff Krupman, has been developing a square pizza recipe of his own, using Detroit style pans but a sourdough crust. At first, he thought making the new pie might be straightforward. Now, he likens the years-long journey to “going down a rabbit hole... it’s a like a 9/11 conspiracy theory, or cryptocurrency.”
Careful not to call them authentic Detroit, Krupman dubbed his pizzas, which are not yet regularly available, “L7.”
“It’s like the old timey joke, ‘you’re L7, you’re square.’”
Nobody got the joke, so now he’s calling them a “7 by 7,” with the first seven inverted, a pun on San Francisco’s square milage. We’re definitely not in Detroit anymore.