You haven’t been to Detroit if you haven’t had Detroit-style pizza. Rectangular and topped with Wisconsin cheese, sliced pepperoni, and homemade tomato sauce, up until recently this style of pizza was Motor City’s best-kept secret.
Until Pizza Hut picked up on it and made a Detroit-style pizza of its own. Now, the word is spreading around and pizza eaters all over the country are asking… where did this delicious style of pizza originally come from?
Is Detroit-style pizza Sicilian?
Detroit-style pizza is Motor City’s version of the Sicilian pizza, also known as the grandma pizza in the U.S. This style of pizza-making can be traced back to the Sicilian pizza called “sfincione,” traditionally made by Sicilian grandmothers on New Year’s Eve.
In this post, I’m going to tell you more about sfincione, and give you my take on how, as the recipe immigrated across the Atlantic, it turned into Detroit-style pizza over time.
Sfincione, the Predecessor of Detroit-Style Pizza
Sfincione (also known as “Lo Sfincione”) is a pizza that Sicilian grandmothers traditionally make on New Year’s Eve. It’s made with a dough that very much resembles focaccia bread and is topped with homemade tomato sauce, onions, anchovy, or Caciocavallo cheese. It’s finished off with a thick layer of breadcrumbs.
Sfincione is also a popular street food on the streets of towns on the island of Sicily. If you’ve been to Palermo, you know what I’m talking about. You’ll often see street carts selling pre-made sfincione that they heat up in a small oven and drizzle some olive oil on.
Last but not least, sfincione is mostly sold in bakeries rather than of pizzerias (which sell pizzas closer to, albeit not quite the same as, the ones they make 500 miles up north in Naples).
As millions of Italians fled Europe to move to America at the beginning of the 20th century, they found themselves in a new country where the ingredients and cookware were slightly different. Naturally, their recipes evolved.
Unlike post-WWI Italy, meat and cheese were affordable and abundant in America. Sfincione from Italy turned into “Sicilian pizza” or “grandma pizza” in the U.S. Anchovy and breadcrumbs turned into sliced pepperoni and American cheese.
And so came to be the Detroit-style pizza.
What is Detroit-Style Pizza?
Detroit-style pizza is a rectangular-shaped pizza with a thick, crispy, and chewy crust. It’s usually topped with Wisconsin brick cheese, a generous amount of sliced pepperoni, and tomato sauce on the top.
The dough for Detroit-style pizza is made with bread flour, which has more protein (gluten) than all-purpose flour. It’s also mixed with more water than you’d typically add to pizza dough. This high-protein, high-hydration dough gives Detroit-style pizza its distinct crust.
The dough is made, risen for 1-2 hours, and spread inside an oil-coated anodized aluminum pan. It’s topped with Wisconsin cheese cubes, pepperoni slices, and finished off with cooked tomato sauce (typically with olive oil, minced garlic, salt, and black pepper).
The pizza is baked for 15 minutes in a preheated oven to 550°F (290°C) until the edges of the pizza have turned black. It’s lifted out from the pan using a spatula, cut into square or rectangular slices, and served.
Detroit-Style Pizza, Compared
How does Detroit-style pizza compare to two similar, yet different, styles of pizza: the Chicago-style pizza and the Sicilian pizza?
Here’s a table I made for you to help you see the difference:
|Detroit-style Pizza||Chicago-style Pizza||Sicilian Pizza|
|Flour||Bread flour (high-gluten flour)||Unbleached all-purpose flour||Bread flour (high-gluten flour)|
|Dough||High-hydration||Very puffy||Soft and smooth|
|Toppings||Wisconsin cheese, sliced pepperoni, tomato sauce||Mozzarella cheese, sausage meat, chunky tomato sauce||Mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, oregano|
|Crust||Black, chewy, and crispy||High-edge, slightly browned||Soft|
|Cookware||Anodized aluminum pan||High-edge pan||Sheet pan|
|Temperature||550°F (290°C)||425°F (220°C)||450°F (230°C)|
What sets Detroit-style pizza apart from other styles of pizza in the U.S. is the high hydration dough—and the thick, chewy, crispy crust that comes out when the doubt is baked at 550°F (290°C) in an anodized aluminum pan.
The dark anodized aluminum pan is key to Detroit-style pizza. When you bake your pizza in it, it’s going to come out with the dark and crisp crust that you’re looking for—without sticking to the pan or burning.
If you don’t have a Detroit-style pizza pan at home, check out our best picks for you.
Who Started Detroit-Style Pizza?
Detroit-style pizza is attributed to Buddy’s, a pizza restaurant on Conant Street in Detroit founded in 1946 (that started as a speakeasy 10 prior to that). Today, Buddy’s Pizza is a chain of restaurants with close to 20 locations, which also ships frozen pizza nationwide.
Buddy’s is the first restaurant to sell Detroit-style pizza, but it most probably didn’t invent this style of pizza. Detroit-style pizza is simply a rendition of the Sicilian pizza that the grandmas of Italian-Americans who lived and worked in Detroit made in their homes.
Since Wisconsin cheese is a favorite among citizens of Motor City and is probably easier to source than mozzarella, it’s not hard to see how the quintessential grandma pizza recipe evolved to become the Detroit-style pizza recipe.
Detroit-style pizza is as American as a style of pizza can get. But it also has roots in sfincione, a simple and humble snack that Sicilian grandmas make on New Year’s Eve—and that street-food vendors sell from food carts in the historic alleys and piazzas of Palermo.
Without a doubt, Buddy’s was the first pizzeria in the U.S. to sell Detroit-style pizza. Their original location at 17125 Conant St., Detroit continues to work to this day and is touted by numerous food shows and blogs as one of the best pizzerias in the country.