As a die-hard, born-and-bred New York pizza eater, I was having some feelings about the Detroit-style pizza trend sweeping the city. Squares? Cheddar cheese? Was this akin to Chicago's deep-dish casserole, which, in my opinion, isn’t pizza at all? In my mind, nothing beats the simple satisfaction of a round pie. Pizza means a New York slice. So why was the Midwest infringing on my beloved city?
Feeling the need to defend my territory from these invaders, I headed over to the newest outpost of Lions and Tigers and Squares Detroit Pizza in Manhattan’s East Village. I was surprised to learn the shop was run by Francis Garcia and Sal Basille, the same guys behind New York’s famed Artichoke Pizza. Hmmm, New Yorkers are making this Detroit stuff? Now I really needed to learn more.
The origins of Detroit-style pizza—a small square pie containing four slices—goes back to Buddy’s Rendezvous, a tavern that added pizza to the menu in 1946. The tavern borrowed deep rectangular trays used for holding nuts and bolts in the automotive industry and cooked the pizza in them. Mozzarella was harder and more expensive to find at the time, so un-aged white cheddar was used, and the layers were created in reverse order: topping, cheese, then sauce. The pies cook in minutes like their NY cousins (and very unlike their long-baking fellow Midwestern pizza, Chicago deep-dish). The result is a crispy, cheesy pie resembling a New York Sicilian slice, but less fluffy. Buddy’s evolved into a pizzeria that still stands today, and after an inspirational visit there, Francis was inspired to bring Detroit-style pizza to NYC. Thus, Lions and Tigers (odes to the city’s football and baseball teams) and Squares (the shape of the slices) was born.
I started off with a plain pie to get a feel for this new pizza genre. Out it came, looking picture-perfect, glistening and pizza-y. One crispy bite and, dare I say, I liked it better than a New York Sicilian slice. It was crispier and less doughy with a more equal proportion of crust to toppings—more of the good stuff, in my opinion. When I first heard cheddar cheese was involved in these pies, I immediately thought of a sharp yellow better suited to nachos and was turned off. But the Wisconsin white cheddar felt like mozzarella, with a nice pull and less stringy snap, and the taste wasn't far off.
Next, I went for the Twitter-famous Mustard Pie, which is what made me want to visit LT&S in the first place. The Mustard Pie was inspired by Francis’ trip to New Jersey’s Papa’s Tomato Pie (I can't help but be jealous of his pizza travels), the oldest continuously operated pizza shop in America. According to Francis, they came up with the specialty when a drunk customer came in and slurred his request for a mushroom pie. Misunderstanding, the guy behind the counter said, “Mustard pie? Give it to him!’” and the legend was born. LT&S makes theirs with a layer of deli mustard over the cheddar, a slice of corned beef, and a tiny bit of sauerkraut.
I was excited to sample this concoction, as deli mustard and sauerkraut are some of my favorite condiments. I may get fussy about nontraditional pizza (I will eat bugs before putting pineapple on my pizza), but this combination works. In fact, it’s delicious. The crispy crust and dough complement the strong but not overpowering mustard. A light touch of corned beef and sauerkraut fully support the pizza’s ecosystem, without any one of them outshining the other. This square gave me all the feels of a classic New York street cart knish or a pretzel. It perfectly captured the flavors of the New York streets of my youth in one warm raft of comfort. This square might not cure my pizza craving, per se, but as far as comfort foods go, it’s invented a whole new one.
The other pies on the LT&S's menu were insanely delicious, too. The super-Italian Detroiter, topped with pork sausage, pepperoni, giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables), onions, cherry peppers, mozzarella, white wine and butter (yes, butter), was a beauty to look at and eat. The Chopped Cheese, LT&S’s other homage to a hyper-local NYC food, is essentially a cheeseburger pizza, with ground beef and American cheese atop the cheddar. It’s a decadent, cheesy, crunchy, and greasy (the G word is a good thing in my pizza world) square of happiness.
My pizza purist mindset was definitely pleased with the pies I sampled at LT&S. Their various twists on the dish married the two states’ traditions well. I guess I can now say I’m a fan of Detroit-style pizza—if it’s made by a New Yorker! (Just kidding!)