by SYLVIA RECTOR
Detroit Free Press
Say it with us: “Detroit-style pizza.”
Every day, people come into Jeff Smokevitch’s stylish Brown Dog Saloon in Telluride, Colo., look at his menu and ask, “What’s Detroit pizza? It’s like Chicago, right?”
No, it isn’t.
Neither is it like New York, New Haven, California, Neapolitan or Sicilian pizza. It’s distinctly Detroit-style, and Brown Dog customers — who had never heard of Detroit-style pizza two and a half years ago — now devour it.
“Every single time, they’re blown away by it. They’ll come back and get it again and again,” said Smokevitch, 36, a Birmingham native and former University of Michigan football player.
Unlike New York’s thin, wide, floppy pizzas and Chicago’s burly deep-dish ones, Detroit’s thick, square pies — first made at Buddy’s Rendezvous in Detroit in 1946 — have never managed to make a dent in the national consciousness.
Buddy’s itself wins scores of awards and often makes national best-pizza lists. But with its stores confined to metro Detroit, its thick but airy crusts and crunchy, cheesy, square corners remain largely unknown elsewhere.
Finally, though, that seems to be changing, thanks to recent high-profile wins by Detroit-style pizzas in national and international competitions, the success of new Detroit-style pizzerias in other cities and a new generation of Detroit pizza believers like Shawn Randazzo of Roseville. They want to see “Detroit-style pizza” uttered with the same familiarity and respect accorded to Chicago’s or New York’s famous styles — and sooner rather than later.
Think it sounds farfetched? They and other experts said they believe it’s only a matter of time.
Randazzo, 37, has just finished his reign as the Las Vegas International Pizza Expo’s 2012 world champion pizza maker — a title no one had ever won with a Detroit-style pie. In truth, most of the judges had never even heard of that style.
You could dismiss the win as a fluke, except that another Detroit-style pizza — this one, prepared by Smokevitch — nearly repeated the feat earlier this month. After winning first place in the American Pan division to advance to the 2013 championship round, Smokevitch came in second overall.
“And I was going up against three Italians in the finals,” he said with pride. “They do really well. They know how to make pizza in Italy.”
It’s successes like those that make Randazzo believe Detroit-style pizza can become a nationally recognized style. He even goes so far as to predict it will happen in the next eight to 10 years.
“Honestly, we’ve done so well in world competition. … We’re blowing the other styles out of the water, but Detroit-style has been such a secret. I look at it as one of Detroit’s best dishes that has been a secret for many, many years.”
Industry takes notice
Winning or placing high in prestigious competitions like the International Pizza Expo and the American Pizza Championships in Orlando matters because it gets your pizza noticed — and copied — by the most influential people in the industry.
Pizza guru Tony Gemignani, founder of the International School of Pizza in San Francisco and a seven-time world champion, vividly remembered Randazzo’s remarkable 2012 win in Las Vegas.
“The judges from Italy or wherever are saying, ‘OK, I’ve heard of New York. I’ve heard of Chicago. But what is Detroit?’ To be able to win with that — a style that no one really has heard of — it’s pretty awesome.”
The reaction to Randazzo’s win was immediate.
“After he won, I must have had six phone calls from operators, from guys who are big in the industry, saying, ‘Give me a recipe for Detroit. How do I figure this out?’ ” said Gemignani, whose school teaches virtually every style of pizza making, including Detroit’s.
Among his former students are brothers Zane and Brandon Hunt, who grew up in Riverview and opened VIA 313: Authentic Detroit Style Pizza in Austin, Texas, 15 months ago. Their humble 8-by-16-foot trailer, set in an artsy section of the city, has been so successful, they’ve already added a second location and are planning a 75-seat restaurant later this year, said Brandon Hunt, 31.
“Our original idea was a Neapolitan pizza place, but then we said, ‘Why not just do Detroit-style?’ When you grow up in Detroit, you just think that’s pizza… that everybody knows it. But it’s really a Detroit thing. It’s great, and we thought people should be able to experience it.”
They debated what to call it.
“We didn’t know if we should play up the Detroit thing — whether we should shy away from it or brag about it. Sometimes people have negative thoughts about Detroit. But we decided to play it up,” Hunt said.
It was the right move.
“Having ‘Detroit’ in the name intrigues people. It sparks interest right off the bat,” he said. And once people taste it, they come back for more.
Just like N.Y., Chicago
Randazzo wants to see more entrepreneurs like the Hunts open Detroit-style pizzerias — and call them that — to help spread awareness of the style, and he is dedicating a significant part of his business efforts to that end.
After working for years for Cloverleaf Pizza in Eastpointe, he broke away last year and created his own business, Detroit Style Pizza, with carryouts in Clinton Township and St. Clair Shores and a dine-in opening soon in Roseville. A few months ago, he took an even bolder step, launching a training and certification program for operators who want to open authentic Detroit-style pizzerias.
He said his two decades in the pizza business and his competitive success, including the 2012 world championship, make him well-qualified to teach others how to make authentic Detroit-style pizza.
He also recently created www.detroitstylepizza.com , a website designed to serve as a one-stop source of information on the history and characteristics of the style and to provide listings of certified pizzerias.
He certified two operators in February and March, has scheduled another in April and is talking to several other people about training, he said.
“I’m doing whatever I can to help promote the cause of getting it as recognized as Chicago and New York. Before, it was a personal thing. Now it’s my company’s mission,” he said. “I definitely believe it will happen.”