Pizza debates are certain to bring out the best and worst in New Yorkers. A casual discussion on New York pizza may quickly escalate into a fight. The battle over fresh vs shredded mozzarella is as heated as any national election. New Yorkers are notoriously devoted to their local slice shops and have little patience for dollar slices, but they are even more dedicated to the city’s unique approach to pizza baking.
Despite this unwavering devotion, Detroit-style pizza has made its way to New York in recent years. It has a cheesy, crackly crust that comes from baking in a deep dish. At the very end, two parallel lines of hot tomato sauce are slopped on top to conceal the boiling nest of cheese and toppings below. Detroit-style pizza, the newcomer in a city flooded with Neapolitan pies, dollar slices, and Sicilian squares, started to stand out.
Despite the changes, it’s still pizza. The store’s co-owner, Matt Hyland, adds, “It simply looks different.
Because of the success of their first pizza place, Emily, Hyland and his wife Emily created Emmy Squared in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2016. Emmy Squared is the place to go if you’re craving a square or rectangular pizza as opposed to the thin, wood-fired pies that Emily is known for. Not too far from Joe’s Pizza and Domino’s down the street, pies like the Emmy (dough lined with mozzarella, banana peppers, red onion, and ranch) and the Angel Pie (mozzarella, ricotta, mushrooms, and truffle-mushroom cream) rotate in and out of the oven in silver pans. Emmy Squared was an immediate hit with the public upon its launch. Huge crowds gather on Grand Street every night, and sometimes they even spill out into the street as they wait in line for a taste of the exotic, cutting-edge pies.
NYC’s restaurant industry has never seen anything like this Midwestern import until Emmy Squared. There are now a number of pizzerias and eateries in Manhattan that serve pizza in the Detroit style. Even newcomers like Lions & Tigers & Squares, Massoni, and Williamsburg Pizza wanted a piece of the action.
While Detroit-style pizza has only been around for a few years on the East Coast, it has been served in Detroit since 1946. Some credit the car industry of Detroit for this, while others point to the pioneering role played by Buddy’s Pizza. One urban legend has it that 8×10-inch blue steel pans were being brought home by autoworkers to use as containers for nuts and bolts. But soon the ladies were cleaning out the pans and using them to bake bread, pizza, and other baked goods.
Francis Garcia, creator of Artichoke Pizza and Lions & Tigers & Squares, adds, “The thing about the blue steel metal, it’s highly receptive to heat.” It resembles a pie plate in certain ways. As it is flimsy, it is quickly scorched by the sun. When you place them on the hot stone, the temperature immediately penetrates them.
Detroit pizza has a thick crust, generous amounts of toppings, and a generous amount of shredded brick cheese (a processed Wisconsin cheese). It begins as a white pie before being baked, and after it’s done, it’s topped with hot red sauce in zigzag patterns that evoke the cascade of a waterfall.
A joke, according to Hyland, is that the two sauce stripes on the pizza are meant to evoke the racing stripes of a vehicle.
The pizzas have a nice dark brown colour on the bottom and a nice black crust on top when cooked in these blue steel metal pans. If you remove the crust off the pan, you’ll find little bits of blistered, cheesy goodness. It’s almost like crostini because the cheese melts in the space between the dough and the pan, as Garcia puts it. The cheese becomes toasted. To use Hyland’s analogy, “the cheese frying around the edge gets crunchy and caramelised,” making the whole thing taste like a mozzarella stick. When a mozzarella stick bursts, the effect is similar. That’s like a burned mozzarella stick on the crust of the pizza.
Crispy crust, scorched cheese remnants, and a hefty serving size are the hallmarks of Detroit-style pizza. Alternatively, New York pizza seems unusual. A single serving of this doughy, greasy, and one-person flatbread requires no cutlery. There’s also a major difference in how the layers are constructed; contrary to popular belief, pizza slices should always start with the dough before adding sauce, cheese, and toppings. Both Hyland and Garcia admit that they were inspired by New York-style pizza while creating their own variations.
Because “we’re in New York, not Detroit,” Hyland explains, “we didn’t want to produce a duplicate of Detroit-style.” For example: “I hate it when I go elsewhere and see signs advertising ‘genuine New York pizza.’ Okay, cool. I won’t be making real Detroit pizza.
As an alternative, Hyland and his crew added their own New York twist to the pies. Emmy Squared uses mozzarella instead of Wisconsin brick cheese, and the sauce is significantly thinner, like that of a New York pizza. Like focaccia, but with lighter, fluffier dough. In addition, the pizza is layered in the New York fashion with dough, cheese, sauce, and toppings above the sauce.
New York-style taste in a Detroit-style pie, as Hyland puts it.
Garcia has also added a New York feel to Lions & Tigers & Squares. On this production line, pizzas are topped with shredded cheese, sausage rounds, and entire olives before being loaded into a deck oven. Each pizza is cut into squares once it comes out of the oven and is transferred to a white paper plate coated with parchment. The location is unremarkable save from the retro-looking neon sign reminiscent of the original Times Square. Some hubcaps and rock & roll posters decorate the walls. There are a few high tables with red tops strewn around the room, as well as a thin counter that runs down one side, and the tables are set with Parmesan and red pepper shakers. You could think you’ve stumbled into a New York slice store if it weren’t for the unusual form and small size of the pizzas on offer.
“No one does it as I’m doing it in a quick-service atmosphere, not just in New York, but everywhere,” Garcia adds. I’ve never been to a place like this before, where the pizzas are laid out for customers to choose from, like a New York City pizzeria. The twist is our own little bit of New York style.”
It’s clear that there’s a huge gap between Detroit and New York. After all, Michigan, home to the car industry epicentre Detroit, is in the very bottom of the United States. Then there’s New York City, a thriving city where you can buy pizza by the slice and the people are rich. In spite of this, New York City has become a melting pot where people from all walks of life come together to share a love of pizza, melding together two very different cultures in the process.
Garcia claims that “a revolution” may be seen in progress in Detroit. Just though it’s in Brooklyn doesn’t make it any less weird. In this case, being the underdog and having Detroit as your home is really great. Everyone is eager to take part in it. One day, everyone will be doing it.
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