Second Helpings

What's the Difference Between Deep-Dish and Detroit-Style Pizza?

Newcomers to the kind of thick-crusted, cheese-smothered pizzas served at the Good Son, the subject of my most recent review, might be tempted to call it deep-dish. After all, it’s a heckuva lot deeper than what usually passes for pie in these parts, right?

The thing is, what the Good Son dishes up is technically considered Detroit-style pizza. For help understanding the fine print separating deep-dish from Detroit-style, I turned to two experts: Francisco “Patxi” Azpiroz, co-founder of Patxi’s Pizza, the California-based chain whose deep-dish creations have nabbed back-to-back Best of Denver awards; and Jeff Smokevitch, a perennial top contender in global pizza challenges and owner of Blue Pan Pizza, a west Highland pizzeria specializing in authentic Detroit-style pizza. Here’s a cheat sheet:

Dough. In Detroit-style pizza, the dough is placed in the pan – traditionally a square blue steel pan — about three-quarters to an inch thick, resulting in a pizza that’s crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. At Patxi’s, dough comes out of a sheeter in thin layers. The first layer is spread in the bottom of the pan about a quarter-inch thick. After piles of cheese and other ingredients are added, a second, even thinner sheet is placed on top, and the edges are pinched together. How thin is the thinner sheet? Patxi tells his pizza-makers that when it comes to the top crust, they “should see light coming through it.”
If Patxi’s stuffed, two-crust pie sounds familiar, there’s a reason: It’s a hallmark of certain Chicago-style pizzas. But Patxi hesitates to slap the authentic, Chicago-style label on his pies. “[Our pizza] definitely has a Chicago influence to it,” he says, but “we call it ‘deep-dish’ or ‘deep’ at the restaurant. It’s kind of permutated a little bit” to reflect West Coast preferences, he adds, with more vegetables than typically found on traditional sausage- and pepperoni-heavy Chicago pies.

Whether thick or thin, however, you can easily tell the difference between the two types of dough. Patxi’s is flaky and buttery, though the recipe calls for vegan margarine rather than butter or lard, whereas Detroit-style dough uses oil. Speaking of oil, pans should be so well-seasoned that an abundance of oil isn’t necessary for Detroit-style pizza. The Good Son uses well-seasoned pans repurposed from the group’s bakery, but still coats them with plenty of oil. This oil gives the crust a deep-fried flavor not found at Blue Pan or even Buddy’s, home to the Detroit original.
Cheese. Both styles of pie use lots of cheese, mounds and mounds of it. But the type of cheese varies. According to Smokevitch, who grew up in suburban Detroit and lived two blocks from Buddy’s, authentic Detroit-style pizza must be topped with brick cheese, a dairy phenomenon unique to the Great Lakes region. At Blue Pan, he sources the hard-to-find cheese and combines it with white cheddar and whole-milk mozzarella, though the exact blend varies in the Motor City. At Patxi’s, the cheese of choice is whole-milk mozzarella, prized for its “good stretch when you pull a slice out,” says Patxi.

Sauce. In authentic Detroit-style pie, sauce isn’t hidden under an ocean of cheese but comes ladled on top. For this, it earns the nickname of upside-down pizza, since the pizza is traditionally built with dough, then pepperoni, then cheese, and finally sauce. But Patxi’s also finishes its pies with a layer of red sauce spooned over the top crust, so don’t rely on the placement of the sauce when trying to tell them apart.