What’s The Deal With Detroit-Style Pizza?
Kids these days are spoiled rotten, what with their TikTok and Fortnite and inheritance of a doomed economy and planet that’s quickly facing a climate reckoning. Okay, the youth of today have actually got a pretty bum deal, in the grand scheme of things. But if there’s one aspect where anyone growing up in the UK today has got a massive privilege over their millennial counterparts it's in the wide range of high-quality pizzas they’ve got available at their disposal.
When I was growing up, there were only really two types of pizzas available: whatever the hell you’d call those thick, bready monsters they had sweating at the Pizza Hut buffet, and the thin ones you’d get at Pizza Express. Now, you can find just about every unique pizza style going on the high street. From Grandma-style Roman slices to thin and crispy New York-inspired pizzas to deep-dish Chicago-y creations, there’s no limit to the pizza available to a dedicated eater in 2021. You’ve just got to know where to look.
One style that I have noticed gaining some traction recently is Detroit-style pizza. For those of you who don’t know, Detroit-style pizzas are these thick, rectangular, almost focaccia-like pizzas that come heaped in cheese and your typical array of pizza toppings. Oh, and the tomato sauce goes on top of the cheese. Go figure. The shape supposedly comes from the fact that the pizzas were first baked in the industrial blue steel pans used by Detroit auto workers. Those pans, initially designed to mop up any grease and oil or hold small industrial parts, turned out to make pretty great trays for creating crispy-edged pizzas.
The style is said to have been invented at Buddy's Pizza in Detroit around 1946 yet it’s only in the last few years that Detroit pizza has gained a foothold on this side of the pond. Ramona, a pizzeria and bar based out in Manchester's Northern Quarter, was one of the country’s early adopters of Detroit-style pizza. While they might not have been the very first to set foot ashore the America of this metaphor they were, at the very least, on the Mayflower when it arrived. One of the problems that Ramona faced early on was explaining to customers what a Detroit pizza actually was, and convincing them that they actually knew what they were doing,
“We did initially have some confusion,” admits Andy Windsor, who works as the Head of Marketing at Ramona. “They didn't exactly complain but people were surprised to see pizza served in that way. That red stripe on top is what's so different about Detroit – in the UK, we're used to Neapolitan, we're used to New York-style stuff, and seeing something other than that is quite jarring. We had people asking ‘is it supposed to be like this?’ or saying stuff like, ‘the cheese goes on top, mate – you know that right?’. I think we even had one Google review that said we had the cheese the wrong way round. But that’s what made it so much more exciting for us – it was a new form of pizza, which we all love, served in a slightly different way.”
While “new” is still obviously a major selling point of these snazzy square pizzas for the time being, Detroit pizza’s sole appeal doesn’t lie in its novelty value. Far from it. Ramona takes its pizza very seriously and even the restaurant’s laid back, industrial vibe is more than just an accidental homage to Detroit’s automotive history. “We had just purchased an old garage warehouse and MOT station in Manchester,” Andy tells MOB Kitchen, “and we'd heard the story about Detroit pizza being made in the Motor City by mechanics and the whole cooking it in the oil tray thing. Knowing that we had an MOT station waiting for a concept, it just made complete sense.”
Ramona’s pies are cooked in a fat-off Tom Chandley oven and drizzled in an array of homemade sauces (created by chefs Dan and Will) that range from a cooling gorgonzola ranch to a sweet and fiery chilli maple. Those thick rectangles are then topped with the joint’s own bespoke cheese blend before being lathered in a stripe of cooked San Marzano tomato sauce. The kitchen team even makes their own vegan cheese. “For us, it's a very different pizza,” explains Andy, “it's fluffy and it's thick but the more quality and emphasis you put on that dough, the lighter it is. We make all our dough fresh every day. A lot of prep goes into the dough and there was a lot of trial and error in getting that right. We did a different pizza concept before so we knew all about Neapolitan dough but getting this right and getting it bubbly and the right consistency was a real learning curve.” Every day is a school day and the team at Ramona are students of the game with some Russell Group-worthy predicted grades. Other swots on the scene include the likes of Detroit Pizza in Battersea, Party Store Pizza in Bermondsey, and White Label Detroit Pizza in Colchester.
“We decided to do Detroit style pizza because when lockdown first happened we really needed a taste of home,” explains Ryan O’Flynn, the American chef and founder of Detroit Pizza, “and while London has a great burger game, the American pizza game left us quite uninspired. So instead of sitting back and watching the news we decided to open Detroit Pizza. We found a great little place in a back alley by Battersea Park a stone’s throw from the American Embassy, and here we still are 16 months later.”
Detroit Pizza has definitely raised the traditional Detroit-style pizza to another level. “The characteristics of our pizza is a soft airy crust, a crunchy exterior, and those caramelized cheese edges known as ‘frico’,” says Ryan. All of DP’s dough starts with their starter, the aptly named “Gordie Howe #9”. That wild yeast starter is fed every day and is 100% hydrated and cold fermented. As for what goes on top of those pies: all the toppings are locally sourced with fruit and veg coming from Chefs Choice and meat from butchers like Swaledale and HG Walter, to name just a few of their suppliers.
“The popularity of Detroit pizza is growing. Every day we see new places pop up in the UK and we also see the big chains like Pizza Hut trying to take the style on at a large scale,” adds Ryan, “Italians are the only sceptical ones but once they try our pizza, they love it.”
If you’re one of those people that’s still a bit sceptical about Detroit pizza – maybe you’re an Italian who's horrified at the mere concept of trying something – I hope you’ll bite the bullet and give it a shot at the next available opportunity. Joints like Ramona and Detroit Pizza are committed to making pizza using quality ingredients and there’s a whole world of pizzas out there just waiting to be explored. Don’t just limit yourself to Naples.