Downtown Birmingham | Bloomfield
05/06/2015 – There are few things that have the ability to pit cities against each other more than sports and food, but such regionalism doesn’t seem to bother fans of Jeff Smokevitch’s Detroit-style pizza in Telluride, Colorado.
“Everyone was against it. They said, ‘don’t call it Detroit-style.’ They said it would have bad connotations,” said Smokevitch, a Birmingham native and former Seaholm High School graduate. “I didn’t listen to them. I put it on the menu, and it was a huge hit.”
“Smoke,” as he is known to his friends, left Michigan shortly after graduating from the University of Michigan, where he played football on the 1997 National Championship-winning team. Now the former football standout is winning awards for his pizza making skills. As co-owner of Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride, his Detroit-style pizzas consistently sell faster than he can make them. The success has led to the opening of a second restaurant, dubbed Blue Pan Pizza, in Denver.
“It’s unknown out here and in a lot of parts of Michigan,” Smokevitch said of the thick-crust, square pizza topped by a signature sauce placed above the cheese. “I’ve been doing it here for about five years, and it’s really gaining momentum.”
Raised in Birmingham, Smokevitch said he was brought up on pizza from Jet’s and Primo’s, but he never considered it “Detroit” style. “I just called it square.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Smokevitch spent a few years in Colorado as a self-proclaimed ski bum. That is, until his parents demanded he get a job. Already bartending, working as a camp counselor and picking up hours at a pizzeria, he decided to go into business with a friend and go full time in the pizza business.
After he and Dan Lynch, a die-hard Boston sports fan, opened Brown Dog Pizza, Smoke said he started slapping regular dough sizes to make a generic thick-crust pizza in a square pan. At the time, he was calling it a Sicilian pizza.
“One night a customer asked to talk to me. He was really fired up,” he said. “We were yelling at each other, and he told me we weren’t making a Sicilian pizza.”
Young and cocky from his burgeoning pizza business, Smokevitch ended up making the customer leave during the argument. Eager to prove himself right, Smokevitch did some research and quickly realized the customer was correct.
“I was doing it wrong, and calling it a Sicilian,” he said. “I figured I better figure it out or start doing something else.”
The encounter served as a turning point for Smokevitch. He quickly enrolled in the International School of Pizza and began learning from renowned pizzaiolo and master instructor Tony Geminani. Under his tutelage, Smokevitch learned the origins of the food he was making and how to perfect it. The work paid off. In 2013, Brown Dog’s pizza was judged as the World’s Best Pizza in the American pan division with a first place finish at the International Pizza Expo.
Today, Smokevitch said he’s grateful to the stranger who set him straight on pizza. Although he has never seen him again, he hopes to one day thank him.
“I was some stupid kid, yelling at an old guy,” he said. “If I didn’t have that, who knows what I’d be doing now.”