Dough Dynasty: The deep dish on Detroit style
The first three episodes of Dough Dynasty told the story of how Michigan’s pizza chains popularized pizza in the United States. The final episode of the series looked into Michigan’s other great pizza contribution: Detroit style pizza.
To be clear, pizza insiders – including columnist for Pizza Today Magazine Scott Wiener – contend that Detroit style is part of the pizza canon.
“Detroit style pizza is not a fad,” Wiener said. “It is 100% here to stay. And the reason is because it is really easy to make it well.”
The Detroit-style pizza origin story
Detroit-style pizza – esteemed for its halo of crispy cheese – is credited to Gus Guerra, an immigrant from San Marino, Italy, who co-owned a bar in Detroit called Buddy’s Rendezvous.
In 1946, hoping to feed his drinking customers while making some extra dough, Guerra introduced a new kind of pizza to the bar: a marriage of his Northern Italian roots and his wife’s Southern. Karen Dybis wrote a book on the history of the lauded pie, “Detroit Style Pizza: A Doughtown History.”
“(Guerra) had to respect his mother-in-law's influence, and she brought the Sicilian style pizza – more of a focaccia-like crust,” said Dybis. “So you have this unique combination of something that was Sicilian, but with that San Marino (influence.)”
Detroit style is a deep dish rectangular pie with a distinct anatomy. A high hydration, aerated dough is layered with toppings, followed by a high fat cheese, like Wisconsin brick, and then finally, skimmed with lines of fresh tomato sauce.
Unlike its round pied siblings, Detroit style notably is baked in a deep rectangular pan, which not only ensures a high rise dough, but also allows the cheese to climb and then caramelize along the pan’s edges. Dybis said that there is a great deal of consternation around what kind of pan started the whole craze. One of these folkloric fables claims that Gus Guerra, a former automotive plant worker, used a steel drip tray for cars, brought straight from a tool and die shop to the kitchen.
But Dybis believes the pan may have been something a little more straightforward.
“I don’t believe, based on countless interviews with family and people familiar with that era in pizza, that we can definitively say, yes these pans came from an automotive plant,” Dybis. “I believe it came from a family bread pan that would have been more rectangular or like what we think of when we make homemade bread now today.”
By 1953, Guerra left Buddy’s behind, opening a new pizza restaurant called Cloverleaf and taking his recipe with him. From there, he worked with other pizza chefs, who took what they learned and expanded on it. It took decades, but Detroit style reached widespread acclaim in no small part because of Shawn Randazzo, who worked with Gus Guerra’s family. He introduced Detroit style at the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in 2012, raising Detroit style from Michigan to the rest of the world.
Chain pizza, Detroit style
In 1978, brothers Eugene and John Jetts opened Jet’s Pizza in Sterling Heights, Michigan, making a Detroit style pie. Some disagree about whether Jet’s is truly Detroit style, because the sauce is on the bottom, but nevertheless the company maintains they are true to the form.
Jet’s Pizza, unlike its originators, was never meant to be a neighborhood joint. From the start, the Jetts brothers wanted to make something huge. Today, Jet’s is one of the top pizza chains, ranking at number 12 in annual sales.
“Jet’s is unique to the Detroit universe because they pattern themselves a little bit more after Little Caesars in terms of volume,” Dybis said. “Eugene and John were visionaries in that they understood what Domino's and what Little Caesars had done was replicable with a more Detroit style pizza, if there were certain aspects that they could kind of massage.”
Other pizza chains followed suit, picking up the Detroit style mantle. In 1988, Little Caesars introduced its own deep-dish pizza known as the Pan!Pan. And in 2022, Little Caesars started using the term “Detroit Style pizza.”
A new generation of pizza makers
Even though the national chains created a household name for pizza, it’s the brilliant independent pizza makers that have revolutionized this form into something special.
The original pizza makers were immigrants; many of the unsung heroes of the pizza story were women. And while insiders say that the white “pizza guy” stereotype is still dominant in the field, that story is starting to change.
Chef Akunna Olumba, co-owner of Detroit Pizza Bar, is a tax law expert turned pizza slinger. She wears the Detroit style pizza maker title like a badge of honor.
“I think the reason why (Detroit style’s) proliferation is so great is because Detroiters, we do things big and loud,” Olumba said. “When you think about Motown, like it's not that there weren't other artists, other places, it's just that Detroit, we pushed it out.”
Olumba is one of few women of color pizza makers in the city. Detroit Pizza Bar opened in a neighborhood that is devoted to developing Black-owned businesses in a majority Black city. While the barriers to entry in the pizza industry for women, and specifically women of color are anecdotal, they’re significant enough to notice.
Longtime Detroit journalist and founding editor of Bridge Detroit, Stephen Henderson, said that Detroit is a city with tremendous assets that aren’t leveraged to benefit the city’s majority Black population.
“There are barriers – historic barriers – which place way more capital and access to capital in white hands than in Black hands,” Henderson said. “At the same time, you are starting to see things like Black-owned pizza places. I mean, just that phrase in Detroit is a strange one, right? There historically haven’t been very many.”
Meanwhile in Southwest Detroit, Ali Beydoun, owner of Detroit’s pizza restaurant Sicily’s, has been making pizza for 24 years. He offers a selection of both round and Detroit style pies using a sourdough crust. He’s won awards for his pies, but Beydoun didn’t originally set out to make pizza when he first immigrated to the United States from Lebanon.
“I started as a gas station clerk… Then I became a mechanic with my own shop. It was very challenging,” Beydoun said, referring back to some of his earlier endeavors. “Pizza wasn't a passion. … This is a very familiar pattern as many immigrants do, you just follow the opportunity.”
And then back to Ypsilanti, Michigan, forever ensconced in pizza history as home of the first Domino’s shop, now home to the next generation of pizza makers. Sam Mothe, former mechanical engineer, opened Mama Pizza, just a few blocks away from where this whole pizza story began.
Mothe immigrated to the U.S. from India to get his masters degree, but the office work wasn’t for him long term.
“This was my dream,” Mothe said. “Pizza, food, and people are the passion, you know.”
He’s serving a Detroit style pizza, but he’s also into making the next Michigan pizza innovation, like the craveable samosa pizza now a staple on his menu. He said the samosa pizza is just the beginning for him.
“There will be some ginger chutney pizza, (something that) no one has ever tasted before,” he said. “Pizza is like you have a clean sheet of paper and you can do anything with it… Sky's the limit.”