New York and Chicago. Those are supposedly the two places you go for “good” pizza. If the pushy Italians in toques regularly quoted by the New York Times are to be believed, New York has got floppy thin-crust pizza down to an inimitably fine art. And if the numerous menacing photos of Mike Ditka inside Chicago’s pizzerias are also to be believed, the city’s deep dish pizza is well worth the hour wait and resulting triple bypass surgery (and would you dare question Ditka?).
Well, I don’t buy it. Not even for a New York minute.
If you look at the nation’s top pizza chains, a completely different narrative emerges. New York’s big gift to the world is apparently Sbarro, that place that keeps the pizza under a heat lamp for an hour before dishing it out to some poor schmuck that doesn’t know any better. Chicago? You tell me. What do they got? Giordano’s? Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of that place.
Nobody? I thought so. Pizzeria Uno, or Chicago Uno Grill as its now referred to as? OK, so they’ve got one pizzeria going for ’em, I guess. But that’s just one.
Detroit is home to four of the top 15 (and two of top five) highest grossing pizzerias in the United States: Domino’s, Little Caesar’s, Hungry Howie’s, and Jet’s. What can I say? The country wants – no, craves – Detroit pizza, because we’re dead serious about it here. Little’s Caesar’s owner Mike Illitch is practically our patron saint. He owns the hockey and baseball teams and about half the properties downtown, from the magnificent Fox Theatre to the gem that is Comerica Park. At this point, the red carpet is pretty much rolled out in front of him wherever he goes. We literally grovel at the man’s sandaled feet.
That being said, Detroiters – Illitch included – know that the roads of our pizza heritage all lead back to Buddy’s Pizza on 6 Mile and Conant in Detroit. Without that, we’ve got nothing. No, it’s not a big chain. You can’t replicate something this amazing on a large scale. The need for true pizza craftsmen and attention to the finest of details is too great. This is hot stuff.
It’s not hard to distinguish a Buddy’s pizza from the competition. Expect a wonderful square shape; heavy gobs of hand-shredded Wisconsin brick cheese; sauce poured on top in strips instead of on the crust itself; and pepperonis deliberately placed beneath the cheese, done primarily to mellow out the intense spiciness of this very deliberate, earnest cured meat. Another, more subtle hint are the well-oiled blue steel pans the bromated dough is famously baked in, which gives the bread all those dark brown crusty bits that are so strangely irresistible – if you see that in the kitchen, you know they mean business.
Courts in back for bocce, an old Italian pastime.
Buddy’s pizza is like the love child of New York and Chicago pizza, the pizza that always should’ve been. While the neighborhood around 6 Mile and Conant has changed dramatically, from its past as a little Italian enclave to a struggling, mainly African American neighborhood, the pizza here is as great as ever. To be sure, the second you step inside the light blue brick building you’re transported to another world, where heaven is a slice away and pizza was always the real fuel of the Motor City. Don’t believe me? Why, they’ve got Diego Rivera’s original vision for Detroit Industry painted right on the walls, sweaty factory workers in blue overalls hunched over pizza stations.
And I say, gimme, gimme, gimme. Now that’s what call an Arsenal of Democracy!
When I went back to Buddy’s in preparation for this article, I noticed they had made a couple menu changes. The new Motor City Pizza Collection immediately spoke to my inner altruistic glutton, calling to my finer sensibilities: you mean to tell me that when I order one of these decadent pizzas, named after various legendary nonprofit Detroit institutions, a dollar is donated by Buddy’s to the pizza’s namesake? Why yes, I believe deeply in social causes! Gimme a slice – preferably now.
I ended up ordering The Detroit Institute of Arts pizza, a decidedly artsy affair that substituted white sauce for pizza sauce and contained a borderline shocking 4 out of 5 of Buddy’s “gourmet” toppings. Indeed, packed with capers, artichokes, spinach, and roasted tomatoes and sprinkled with Parmesan, its deliciousness was almost too predictable. I ate one slice, and then another and another, until I collapsed into a carb- and grease-induced coma right on the red and white checkerboard patterned tablecloth. So delicious … must… eat… one more… slice. Can’t grrrgggggg… Ugh.