Have you had Detroit-style pizza? Even if you think you haven’t, chances are good that you have. It’s identifiable by a square shape and thick crust, and Detroit is where Little Caesar’s originated. So if you were a kid in the ’90s and attended any sort of birthday party, you were most likely fed square, thick-crust pizza. The pizza was popular back then because it was cheap. Thanks to the chain’s now-infamous “Pizza! Pizza!” promotion, it also, if not exactly on purpose, introduced all of America to the Detroit-style pie—or, at least, a fast-food facsimile of it.
At those parties, I had my share of Little Caesar’s pizzas, and aside from the corner pieces, where the cheese burned into the crust, my memories of them are probably in line with yours: I thought they were terrible. But that didn’t sour me—or the rest of the pizza-eating public—on the style. In fact, if you haven’t noticed, Detroit pizza is having its Nashville Hot Chicken moment right now.
The story of its origins traces back to 1946, when August “Gus” Guerra started repurposing the square pans used for carrying nuts and bolts at car factories to bake his Sicilian-style dough. He served the pizza at his tavern, Buddy’s Rendezvous, which eventually evolved into Buddy’s Pizza, which now has outlets throughout Michigan. But it wasn’t until around eight years ago that the Detroit style started becoming popular outside of the state.
According to Esquire magazine, the trend seems to have been sparked by two pizza joints. The first is VIA 313, which opened in 2011 in Austin, Texas. Around the same time, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana by Tony Gemignani—the 13-time World Pizza Champion—started offering the style at his San Francisco spot. The magazine credits Gemignani as the first person to sell Detroit pizza in California. Since then, pizzaiolos all over the map have been baking up their own renditions.
Apart from the square pan and the deep-dish thickness of the crust, all Detroit-style pies share hallmarks that distinguish them from, say, a Chicago pie. First is the crispy cheese that fuses to the edges. By anyone’s definition, it’s not a Detroit-style pizza unless enough cheese melts and caramelizes around the outside borders to form the same crunchy substance that leaks out of your quesadilla. This is achieved by applying Wisconsin brick cheese all the way up to where the dough touches the side of the pan. This is to ensure that some of the cheese gets in between the gap. The second defining characteristic is a decorative finishing stripe of marinara placed on top.
Although the new Steel Pan Pizza in Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market food court uses mozzarella instead of Wisconsin brick for its Detroit-style pies, the edges are perfectly crisp. As with Parallel Pizzeria in Dana Point, which faithfully re-creates New Haven-style pizza down to mimicking Connecticut water by adding algae, Steel Pan Pizza abides by the Detroit-style gospel. The pie it calls “Classic Detroit” has the signature marinara stripe, but most important is that the dough is essentially fried as it sits and bakes in those well-oiled steel pans. The result is a consistently crunchy bottom crust. The rest of it is airy and focaccia-like—a well-yeasted bread that rises to about a half-inch and is able to withstand a mountain of toppings.
The pizza called “Nuts and Bolts” is exactly what this kind of dough is designed for. It bears the standard pizza toppings—spicy pepperoni cups and cut-up Italian sausage, olives, mushrooms, bell peppers and red onions—but they’re crammed into such a small area that they’re not so much baked into the cheese as they are just sitting on top in a pile. Trying to pick it up with your hands causes all the toppings to topple onto your lap. As such, you wouldn’t be faulted for knife-and-forking it.
Whether you try that pizza or the “Steel Pan Style”—which tastes uncannily similar to Costco’s Chicken Bake, with its white sauce, chicken, bacon, mushrooms and dressed arugula—you can get away with ordering just one pizza for two people. These pizzas may appear to be individually sized and comprise four small slices, but they’re surprisingly filling. You need only two slices per person.
And it’s exactly because they’re molded into those small steel pans that every slice of pizza here is guaranteed to have two crispy edges per piece. This part is important because, as I’ve learned from those childhood pizza parties, you always want the corner piece.
Steel Pan Pizza, 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; www.steelpanpizzaco.com. Pizzas, $8-$12.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.