Like so many Americans, Maryland resident Zena Alhija has turned to eating tantalizing comfort foods to escape the monotony of quarantine life during the past year of the pandemic. One of Alhija’s favorite finds is a new Detroit-style pizza shop in Baltimore whose pies reminded her of the square-shaped ones she devoured while visiting a friend in Michigan.
“It’s really filling and satisfying,” said Alhija, an adjunct global health professor at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. She makes the 40-minute round-trip drive to get her favorites from Underground Pizza’s downtown Baltimore store, which opened last year. She savors the pizza’s thick, focaccia-like base and the cheese, which swims all the way up to the edges, leaving a crispy and chewy caramelized edge.
With its thick crust and rectangular shape, Detroit-style pizza is an offshoot of its cousin, Sicilian-style pizza. But the crust is crispier and there’s an unmistakable coating of burnt cheese that forms from the pizza’s pan, making corner slices the most coveted.
It’s those qualities that have made Detroit-style pie have a moment, with sales across the country rising faster than the pillowy dough that forms its base.
Slice, an online pizza purchasing platform, says it experienced a 65% increase in Detroit-style pizza orders last year compared with 2019. And, a sure indication that there are dollars to be had in the dough, Pizza Hut even recently unveiled its own foray into the deep-dish square pizza business.
While the pizza style started growing before the pandemic, it has mushroomed in the past year as more consumers seek out new foods while stuck at home.
“We’re limited in social interaction and seeing our friends and family, Alhija said. “Comfort food is all we have right now.”
How Detroit-Style Pizza Came To Be
The square-shaped pizza got its humble beginnings in 1946 on Detroit’s East Side at Buddy’s Rendezvous Pizzeria, now known as Buddy’s Pizza. The owner at the time channeled his mom’s Sicilian pizza recipe, but used rectangular steel pans from area automotive plants to give it that Motor City spin.
“[The pans] created this nice light, airy, square pizza, but with a crisp outer layer,” said Buddy’s CEO Burton Heiss. The dough is stretched twice to give it a thick crust that doesn’t crumble under the weight of heavy toppings.
While other pizzas top the dough with sauce, cheese and toppings, Detroit-style pizza follows the reverse order. Pepperoni and other meats are placed directly on the dough, allowing the flavors to seep into the crust. Next, the whole pie gets a generous helping of cheese — traditionally Wisconsin brick, though many newer spots have put their own spin using mozzarella, gruyere or vegan cheese. Pizza makers make stripes with the tomato sauce, giving it a distinctive flag-like look.
Why It’s A Favorite During The Pandemic
Despite ongoing closures and limits to indoor seating, most pizza shops have fared OK during the pandemic because they were already set up for delivery and takeout. For that reason, pizza has been faring better than the rest of the quick-service restaurant world, says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group Inc. The National Restaurant Association says pizza was among the top three best-selling food items among restaurants it surveyed in December.
But Detroit-style pizza is winning the most hearts and bellies. To keep up with the national demand, Buddy’s Pizza started working with food delivery service Goldbelly in December to satisfy customers’ pizza cravings. “Detroit expats living around the country were constantly calling us to sell our pizza,” Heiss said.
According to food consulting firm Technomic, 40% of consumers rate the dough or crust quality as the most important component of pizza. “Because the crust is such an important part of this pizza style, this makes me think this is why this has become so popular,” said Technomic senior research manager Lizzy Freier, who tracks menu trends. Menu mentions of “Detroit” in the pizza category are up 63% in the past five years, she said.
Its Photogenic Qualities Have Made It An Instagram Sensation
Googling almost any major city and “Detroit-style pizza” will likely reveal that it’s catching on somewhere near where you live. Greater Boston is getting more Detroit-style pizza. What’s the deal with Detroit-style pizza in Dallas? Detroit pizza pop-ups are taking over D.C.
And a popular San Francisco Detroit-style pizza place, Square Pie Guys, opened a second location in Oakland. Underground Pizza says it now makes as many as 1,200 pies a week, compared with three last June when founder Evan Weinstein started making pizzas out of his home.
One reason it’s taking off is because the shop owners have actively promoted the pies on Instagram and considered how the pizzas would look on the photo-sharing app while designing them.
For instance, the green goddess dressing brightens the pepperoni pizza that Square Pie Guys named after basketball player Jeremy Lin. “Instagram is a big driver of food trends and in a way Detroit-style pizza is uniquely Instagrammable because if you’re used to seeing round pizzas on a page, that square pie really pops,” said Danny Stoller, co-founder of Square Pie Guys. Having already purchased 500 pizza pans for their new Oakland location, the owners have already put in an order for more.
Stoller says “people are turning to their phones for solace in these crazy times and are seeing these awesome pizzas, and it just so happens that Detroit-style pizza looks fucking cool on a screen.”
But is Detroit Pizza just a fad? Alhija thinks it will stick around and become part of the food scene. “I think it’s definitely here to stay.”