Author Karen Dybis, right, talks to Adrianna Cantelli, 88, center, and Marie Marine, 85, nieces of Detroit-style pizza inventer, the late Gus Guerra, and daughters of Gus Guerra’s brother, Mike, who worked at Cloverleaf.
JAMESON COOK — THE MACOMB DAILY
Detroit-style pizza has grown from its 1946 origins in the kitchen of the first Buddy’s Pizza in Detroit to a burgeoning worldwide explosion.
Karen Dybis, author of “Detroit Style Pizza: A Doughtown History,” which was released May 29 by History Press, talked about pizza last week during an Eastpointe Rotary luncheonat at Cloverleaf Bar & Restaurant on Gratiot Avenue in Eastpointe, one of the “original three” Detroit-style pizza makers.
Dybis, who grew up in Romeo and lives in Grosse Pointe, said while Detroit-style pizza has been popular for decades in metro Detroit, it has spread like a viral video over the past 10 years or so to not only other parts of the United States but across the planet.
“It’s literally worldwide now. A Detroit-style pizza restaurant … just opened in Dubai,” she said to gasps in the audience. “There are stores across the (world). They’re in Europe, they’re in Mexico, and they’re going to just keep growing because people just adore this style of pizza.”
She noted that Via 313 Pizzeria, which says it makes “genuine” Detroit-style pizza, opened in Austin, Texas in a trailer in 2011 by two native Detroit brothers and now has at least 12 locations.
A growing pizza chain in the West, Slice House by Tony Gemignani, offers Detroit style pies.
In Denver, Blue Pan pizza was founded by Jeff Smokevitch, who studied under Gemignani, and his brother, both Detroit natives.
The book centers around the origins of Detroit-style pizza, how the original trunk of the pizza tree was formed. She said before her book, there wasn’t a single source to present the comprehensive history the style.
“We have all this great pizza year and I wanted to show the lineage of how these pizza makers came to be,” she said. “These pizza makers came from somewhere. It’s a Detroit original. We want to make it our own.”
Detroit-style had been a reference of the few in the know but became part of the pizza-industry lexicon in 2012 when the late Shawn Randazzo, a former Cloverleaf chef, referred to his creation as Detroit style after winning the World Champion Pizza Maker of the Year at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, Dybis said. In 2015, he won the Motor City Pizza Fest competition with his Detroit Twist pizza.
Randazzo died at 44 in 2020 from cancer and the company remains in operation by his mother and wife, Dybis said; the franchises are opening as Corktown Pizza.
Detroit-style pizza is described as a rectangular deep-dish pie that features a light, moist crust on the inside with a crisp exterior, an onslaught of cheese and a right amount of baked tomato sauce. The cheese can be brick, white cheddar, mozzarella, or a blend of them.
Dybis said the caramelizing of the cheese “is the secret mojo that makes Detroit-style pizza so crave-able.”
The style was developed by Gus and Anna Guerra and his wife, who partnered with Anna’s uncles, Gasper and Joseph Gunco, to open a bar, Buddy’s Rendezvous, in 1944 in a former grocery store building owned by Anna’s family at Six Mile Road and Conant Avenue.
The bar wasn’t making enough money so Guerra tried pizza. Hence, the Sicialian-based recipe came from Anna’s mother, known as “grandma Passalacqua.” They “started to make pizza as a side thing, in addition to the drinks they were serving the patrons,” Dybis said.
The chefs baked the pies in blue pans typically used in auto plants to hold small parts or pieces. Dybis said the trick to achieving the delicious cheese taste is the “angled sides” to the pan.
“You can get the cheese all the way to the edges, and that’s when the magic happens when that high-fat cheese cooks, it bubbles, it caramelizes, it gets crazy crunchy and golden brown,” she said. “Some people describe it as almost a grilled cheese. Every time you hear it your stomach starts to growl.”
The sauce on top “adds that little kiss of moisture of tomatoes sitting in sweetness that we all crave, sweet and savory on our taste buds. It keeps that crust super light and exciting. It’s just different,” she said.
The square slices and rectangular shaped pie are signatures of Detroit style, she said.
“You can eat a round pizza. Don’t get me wrong. I love them, too,” she said. “But there’s something about that square. It’s like blended into a Detroiter’s DNA. We knew what it was before the rest of the world knew what it was.”
The timing of Buddy’s introduction was fortunate. The success was helped by servicemen returning home from World War II who had tried Sicilian pizza in Europe demanded the same here, she said.
The Buddy’s partnership fell apart in 1953, when Guerra and his wife brought Detroit style to a new pizzeria, the Cloverleaf, opening in a new building in what was then known as East Detroit.
That restaurant has become a mainstay in the history of East Detroit and Eastpointe, and is still operated by the Guerra family, Gus Guerra’s daughter, Maria Easterby, and son, Jack.
Additional Cloverleaf locations are franchises, Dybis said.
Meanwhile, Buddy’s, which was bought by Jimmy Valente and Jimmy Bonacorsi, continued to flourish offering Detroit-style pies after Guerra left. The brothers owned it until 1970 when William and Shirlee Jacobs bought it, Dybis said. The Jacobs sold it during the COVID-19 pandemic to CapitalSpring investment firm a few years ago. The number of Buddy’s locations has increased to 22, many of them carry-out.
The third of the original three pioneering Detroit-style pizza makers is Loui’s Pizza, located on Dequindre Road near Nine Mile Road in Hazel Park, Dybis said. The founder, the late Louis Tourtois, worked as a chef at Buddy’s from 1954 to 1970, when he went to Shields Pizza and started its Detroit-style pie. Tortoise left Sheilds and opened Loui’s in 1977. His family has run it since his passing earlier this century, Dybis said.
Buddy’s, Cloverleaf and Loui’s are among many pizza choices in metro Detroit, where hundreds of carry-out and sit-down pizza places cluster the street corners and strip malls, reflecting a wide range of food cultures, creating a potpourri of choices.
“You name it, we have it here,” Dybis said. “Detroit really is doughtown. There’s so many pizza places that started here so you know that it’s something in our DNA. It’s our immigrant past where all these different mosaics of beautiful cultures – Hungarian, Polish, Sicilian, San Marino, German, I could name dozens if not into the 10s or into the 100s – of people who moved here for work in the auto industry.”
Dybis noted the presence of Little Caesars and Dominos as giants in the pizza industry; only Little Caesars, founded locally by the Illitch family, offers Detroit style.
Many other of the other pizzerias here offer other styles, variations or replicas of Detroit style, she said.
She described Jet’s Pizza as “a nice cousin” of Detroit style, and pizzeria’s such as the Green Lantern offer a variety including Detroit style
Other types of pizza include Chicago style, which is also deep dish and can be round or square, New York, New Haven and Neopolitan, Dybis said. The latter three are thin and typically round.
At last week’s event at Cloverleaf, Dybis sold out of the two dozen books she brought with her and she was swarmed with people asking questions.
“People are excited about the book because it provides a basic knowledge of Detroit style,” she said.
Dybis has written four other books on local history, is a freelance writer and was a Detroit News staff business writer for five years in the mid 2000s. She said the book “allowed me to stretch my legs journalistically” because most of her work has been limited in topic. She saidi she interviewed over 60 people for the book and spent about one year researching and writing it.
Maria Guerra Easterby said Dybis interviewed her and her brother multiple times at the restaurant. Guerra recalled an instance when Dybis called her from the Detroit library after making an important family discovery.
“She’s very good at the details,” she said. “She’s a good writer and a great speaker, too.”
Dybis said she will have her book at a Detroit-style pizza celebration that is planned to start at 11 a.m. on June 23 at the Buddy’s Pizza in Detroit.