Why Detroit-Style Pizza Is Everywhere Right Now
Motor City’s signature slice has proliferated to all corners of the U.S. thanks to Detroit natives who wanted a slice of home.
Pizzerias throughout Las Vegas, Robby Cunningham noticed, were dishing pizzas doing a good impression of the tall, square pies he grew up eating in the Downriver area of Metro Detroit. “I went and tried a couple places and I was almost offended,” says Cunningham, who lives in Las Vegas now. “[I thought] this isn’t Detroit-style. Nothing about it hit like a Buddy’s pizza or even Little Caesars deep dish.”
Not one to humor subpar pizza, Cunningham started making pizzas at home in 2019. Using a pan he brought on Amazon and a recipe from his friend, who had worked at Jet’s Pizza, a popular chain in Detroit that has hundreds of locations in 19 states, he made his first pizza. It was awful. He tried again, and the second one was worse.
By the third time, it clicked.
“I was just so satisfied with this pizza. I had a friend over, and we made a cheese pizza. And I cried. I was like, ‘Dude, it’s like Buddy’s.’ And he was like, ‘Dude, this is incredible.’ I was like, ‘This is what I'm saying, man, this shit is awesome. This is great pizza.’”
Now Cunningham uses his perfected dough at Guerrilla Pizza, the spot he opened in 2020 and operates out of Hard Hat Lounge in Las Vegas.
“I’m just so fuckingstoked, excuse my language, that I have figured out how to make my favorite pizza,” Cunningham says. “This isn’t my pizza per se. I feel like I am just a prophet of Jet’s and Buddy’s and I’m just sharing the gospel.”
Cunningham isn’t the only Detroit native who, in a city much further afield from Motor City, is slinging square pie reminiscent of home.
The rise of Detroit-style pizza
Detroiters know and love their square pies. “Sauce. Dough. Cheese. If you can’t do those three things well, it’s a wrap,” says Jason Hall, the co-founder of the popular group ride Slow Roll in Detroit who ate pizza every day for a year and does tours of his favorite pizza spots through the company RiDetroit. “If you cannot make a good dough, and your sauce isn’t good, and you don’t have a good quality cheese, wrap it up. Go home.”
The cheese has to be brick (that’s how you get those craveable crispy fried edges) and the sauce, which is on top of the cheese, has to have a signature flavor, whether that’s a little sweeter or more basil forward, Hall explains.
That distinct pie traces its roots to 1946 at Buddy’s Rendezvous on Conant Street in Detroit, where Gus Guerra and his two partners,Gaspar and Joe Genco, created an Americanized version of the Sicilian- style pizza, says journalist Karen Dybis, who is writing the forthcoming book Doughtown., which traces the history of Detroit’s signature pizza and separates myth from fact. Former Buddy’s cooks branched out on their own—Loui’s in Hazel Park, Cloverleaf in Eastpointe.
As much as the regional dish was beloved by locals, it didn’t have the same recognition as New York thin crust or Chicago deep dish. That is, until about 2009.
That’s when Shawn Randazzo, who ran his own business Detroit Style Pizza, entered a pizza competition, where he set himself apart from the pizza pack with his square pizza. Three years later, he was crowned World Champion Pizza Maker. He started a consulting business to teach others the ways of Detroit-style pizza. Randazzo passed away in 2020 after battling brain cancer.
Dybis says in addition to Randazzo, Brandon and Zane Hunt also helped raise Detroit pizza’s profile. The brothers hail from Riverview, Michigan and started a food truck in Austin, Texas, where it was a hit.
“They’re the first physical manifestation of a formal business that did [Detroit-style pizza] outside of Metro Detroit and that was one of the key factors,” Dybis says. “It had to leave the comfort of Metro Detroit to kind of get the credibility that it has now.”
Hall says expats are driving the nationwide trend of Detroit pizza.
“We have a lot of expats that are now taking it to other places because if you want to open a unique restaurant, and you're from Detroit, what is more unique than Detroit-style pizza?”
One of those expats is Ryan Ososky, executive chef of Dtown Pizzeria in Los Angeles, who grew up in suburban Detroit. No one called it Detroit-style pizza.
“It was the square pan pizza, [the kind where] you'd fight for the corner pieces because you wanted the crispy edges,” Ososky says. “For most people in Michigan, it really was just square pan, rectangle pan pizza, but I think that [now] it has a name and people can associate it with something … it’s its own thing and it deserves its own recognition [from other styles of pizza].”
Pizzerias and chefs who don’t have Motor City roots are getting into the game too. In 2016, Emily Hyland and executive chef Matthew Hyland opened Emmy Squared Pizza in Brooklyn. Shortly after, Howard Greenstone, who had experience growing other concepts like Rosa Mexicano and worked with chefs like Jonathan Waxman and Marcus Samuelsson, came on as a partner.
“Matt Hyland was obsessively particular about the details of putting every pizza together,” says Greenstone. “They had created a concept that had the ability to grow.” Since then, the restaurant group has expanded beyond New York, opening locations in Nashville, Philadelphia, California—even Abu Dhabi. Detroit-style pizza, to Greenstone, has staying power.
Beyond the Detroit pizza trend
For the expats like Cunningham and Ososky, Detroit pizza is more than a trend—it’s a part of who they are.
Ososky grew up in the Detroit suburbs eating square pan pizza (usually from Jet’s) every weekend with his family. After culinary school he took off for Maui to further hone his craft before settling in Los Angeles. He’s worked as executive chef at hot spots like XIV by Michael Mina and Churchkey, where he dreamt of making thesquare pizza of his youth in LA.
Since then, Dtown Pizzeria has been slinging pies inside the modern Vietnamese restaurant Phorage Weho. While Ososky stays within the parameters of what makes a Detroit-style pizza, there is a cheffy spin to his artisanal pies such as the Pho Dip Pizza with aged Gruyère, caramelized onions, and summer truffle beef pho broth and The Resolution Pizza with shaved A5 wagyu beef tenderloin, pickled red onions, truffle, and scallions. The latter was named World Champion in the pan division in the 2021 International Pizza Competition in Las Vegas.
In creating Dtown, he says he’s “doing what I grew up with and selling nostalgia for a lot of the Michigan people.”
Cunningham agrees that the personal connection is what’s putting Detroit pizza in all corners of the country.
“I feel like the trend in Detroit style pizza is being driven by how great the pizza really is,” Cunningham says. “I think it’s redefining people’s perspective of what ‘deep dish’ pizza is and can be. From my experience, I’m probably asked daily what the difference is between Detroit style and Chicago deep dish pizza, and it’s vast. I think there is also a level of nostalgia with pan pizza, and people really feel that connection when eating Detroit-style pizza.”