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On March 20, 1929, a 21-year-old man named Agostino Guerra sailed to New York on the Augustin, leaving his beloved San Marino, a microstate within north central Italy. Guerra had three things going for him: He was powerfully built at around 5 foot, 6 inches and about 180 pounds. He had $70 in his pocket to fund a new life. And he had relatives waiting for him in Detroit with the promise of work.
Seven months later, the United States was plunged into the Great Depression. Guerra worked as a tile setter and then a laborer at Ford’s River Rouge plant and became known to friends and coworkers as Gus. Guerra got married, and as the country emerged from World War II, he decided to partner with his wife’s family to buy a little bar at Six Mile and Conant. It already had a popular bocce ball court and loyal clientele. But its menu needed…something. Guerra took the family’s bread pans into work one day, along with his mother-in-law’s pizza recipe.
If you eat food and live in or around Detroit, you may know the rest of the story. The place? Buddy’s Rendezvous. The menu item? A pie made in a rectangular shape with a light, well-hydrated dough that gets hit with cheese fried to crispy perfection on the sides of the pan and topped off with a red sauce.
“The bar business was good; and when we added pizza, it got better,” Guerra told industry magazine “A Slice of Pizza.”
Guerra arguably created what is called today Detroit Style Pizza. He was the original among the originals, the King of Detroit Style Pizza. But does he deserve that title?
As you also might guess, that’s not an easily settled argument. Who really gets credit for “Detroit Style Pizza” or for its name? How and why did it go from one bar to another? What was in that original recipe, and should it ever be altered? Who masterminded its spread from Detroit to Las Vegas to Texas, Colorado, California and the rest of the world over the past decade?
Those are the questions I’m trying to answer with a new Detroit history book that focuses on the legend of this beloved food. Tentatively titled, “Doughtown,” I’m tracking down the original families behind brand names such as Buddy’s, Cloverleaf, Shield’s, Loui’s and others. Demystifying the myths, sifting through the stories to find the facts, tearing apart old presumptions and pulling all emotion out of the mix in hopes of telling the truest history possible.
Tracing the history of a food is both easy and difficult. There are some written records to search, such as cookbook archives or liquor license documents. There are buildings to inspect. There are family members to interview—people who devote their lives to making the same food as their father or grandfather and are working day in and day out to preserve.
But many chefs never write down their recipes, never publish a cookbook, never think about the legacy of the food they’ve created. Rather, they’re like most of us: Regular people, working every day, trying to keep the family fed, never thinking beyond the immediate future, never telling their life history to their kids.
Detroit has torn down more than its fair share of buildings from the time Guerra came to Detroit, but some of the original restaurants, Italian bakeries and bars that first served this legendary food known to us locals for decades as “square pizza” are still here.
Equally important to the story is Detroit’s legendary histories of immigration, food innovation and entrepreneurship. Thanks to the Italian immigrants who settled here, including Guerra, we can brag that we knew what pizza was before most of the nation. The Detroit Free Press made its first reference to pizza—both the making and eating enjoyment of it—waaaaaaaay back in 1939. (For the most part, the rest of the nation didn’t get to know this delicious dish until after World War II.)
Our devotion to pizza has only grown since then. Michigan is home to four of the top 15 largest pizza chains in the United States: Domino’s, Little Caesars, Hungry Howie’s and Jet’s, at least measured by “Pizza Today” magazine (2019 list; most recent available). The Mitten State also is home to Buscemi’s (No. 41), Buddy’s Pizza (No. 57), Bellacino’s (No. 69) and B.C. Pizza (No. 92).
When it comes to pizza styles, we’ve also got it all. Every single one of them is served in a built environment that tells you everything you need to know about the pizza and its personality. There are two certified Neapolitan pizza joints: PizzaPlex in Detroit and Pizza e Vino in Plymouth—both with clean, simple interiors where they brag about being members of Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana or the True Neapolitan Pizza Association. Mootz, which serves New York slices, is loud, boisterous and as jam-packed as a New York City street. Tomatoes Apizza (locations in Farmington, Farmington Hills and Birmingham) serves its New Haven-style pizza amid the warmth of its coal-fired brick oven, its crust chewy and sauce barely a whisper.
Then there are the Detroit Style Pizza places. Buddy’s original location is a cheerfully chaotic mishmash that honors its 75 years of slinging pies. Cloverleaf in Eastpointe, where Guerra ended up in the 1950s, is comforting and covered in family pictures. Loui’s in Hazel Park feels like the same Chianti bottles founder Louis Tourtois hung on the walls back in 1978 are probably still there.
Speaking of Louis—the original Shield’s bar, where he started making his own version of Detroit Style Pizza, is just a few blocks down the road from the original Buddy’s. I’ve driven around it many times, hoping to see a ghost sign or some other hints of its past glory. I don’t recommend repeating my experience—all I got out of it was a flat tire and some strange looks from the neighbors.
One thing I have learned for sure on this pizza journey—which I hope to complete next year—Detroit Style Pizza and its massive growth is one of the reasons the city has such a positive food reputation. Who gets credit for it? Why did it take nearly six decades to leave Michigan’s borders and gain an international reputation? I have lots of questions, some answers and many more pies to eat before I’ll know.
Karen Dybis is a metro Detroit reporter who has covered everything from Dr. Jack Kevorkian to Kmart to the long-awaited Robocop statue. She is the author of four local history books, including “Better Made in Michigan” and “The Witch of Delray.” Get in touch with her at email@example.com.