How Place Makes Pizza

Where To Eat Pizza looks at what cities worldwide put into a pie. Thank the auto industry for Detroit’s square-shaped tradition.

Image Via 313 Pizzeria
Via 313 Pizzeria

Blue steel industrial utility trays were ubiquitous in Detroit in 1946. At the height of the auto industry’s power, these could be found in virtually any factory. They were wholly conventional. They weren’t even blue: That’s just the name of the grade of steel used to make them.

But Gus Guerra saw something special in blue steel utility trays: He saw a little piece of home. Guerra, who was working at Buddy’s Pizzeria in 1946, figured that he could make a decent Sicilian-style pizza in a blue steel utility tray. Even if the pan was rectangular in shape.

He was right. The trays only need a little bit of oil to be non-stick, and they turn out to be excellent conductors of heat, according to Daniel Young, a London-based food critic and former restaurant critic for the New York Daily News. The pan gave Detroit’s deep-dish pizza its defining characteristic: the way that the Wisconsin-brick cheese leaks out and burns along the edges of the pan, creating its caramelized crust.

“That became the signature,” Young says. “This thing from the auto plants, this piece of equipment that would hold screws and bolts and nuts and thingamajigs, actually found its true calling as a pizza pan.”

Even if the 1946 story is rooted in apocrypha, the fact remains: Detroit pizza’s been square ever since. This history has made Buddy’s Pizzeria a favorite among Detroit pizza eaters, one reason why Buddy’s is listed in Where To Eat Pizza—a new, 576-page global directory to the very best pizzerias in the world.

Daniel Young, Where To Eat Pizza (Phaidon, 2016)

Young, the author and editor of Where To Eat Pizza, didn’t set out to make a guide to the best pizza-pie on the planet. That atlas might include just a handful of places: New York, Naples, Rome, Sicily. Instead, Where To Eat Pizza lists the best pizzerias across the entire world—from Pizzeria Trta in Ljubljana to Franco’s Pizzeria and Trattoria in Johannesburg to Pinzeria by Bontempi in Moscow. All told, the book features 1,705 pizzerias from 48 countries around the globe, including pizza places from 128 cities in all 50 U.S. states.

Young’s original goal was to assemble a book of essays, recipes, and recommendations—“more of a pizza bible,” he says. Instead, he wound up writing something of a pie-oriented sequel to Where Chefs Eat, another directory published by Phaidon. Young says that the listings format is “a little more reflective of the obsession or insanity that we have for foods like pizza.”

The “Margarita in the ‘D’” pizza [sic] from Detroit Style Pizza. (Detroit Style Pizza)

Young says that he modeled the process for assembling the book after the James Beard Foundation Awards. First, he convened a panel of 121 regional experts from across the world. Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for The Times-Picayune, served as the regional expert for New Orleans; Nomi Abeliovich covered Israel; Isidora Díaz got Chile; and so on. These 121 regional experts in turn deputized a total of 956 “pizza informants” to vote on recommendations.

“Those [regional experts] found between 3 and 40 voters from their region, depending on the importance of the region, pizzawise,” Young says. Every area listed in the book includes listings for six pizzerias: three within city or neighborhood limits and three from the broader area worth the trip. So every pizza place falls within somebody’s top-three list.

“The pizza’s made with a San Francisco sourdough starter and Italian DOP tomatoes and it’s served in a Chinese restaurant with a Filipina chef and a chef-owner who is a Korean-born orphan raised in Oklahoma,” reads a listing by Francis Lam of the pizza at Mission Chinese Food on the Lower East Side in New York City. “Only in America!”

Where To Eat Pizza is a text that pizza purists (okay, New Yorkers) might find deeply disturbing at first glance. Young freely acknowledges that the very best pizzeria in Slovenia might not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the 30th-best pizzeria in New York. But the purpose of the book is to demonstrate how—despite the best efforts of New Yorkers, Neapolitans, and Sicilians, or perhaps because of them—pizza is the world’s most global food.

To be sure, many nations that may boast excellent, or at least adequate, pizzerias are not listed in the guide. That reflects the limits of Young’s intelligence network, he says, more than the limits of the global reach of ‘za. “Pizza is everywhere,” Young says. “There might be areas of Sub-Saharan Africa that might be difficult to find. But there’s a lot of pizza everywhere, and there’s more good pizza in more places than at any time.”

Hence Young’s essays on Japan’s obsession with Neapolitan pizza (the nation has the third most Vera Pizza Napoletana–certified pizzerias in the world), Marseille’s status as the home of the very first pizza food truck (pizza truckers there formed a union in 1973), and Detroit’s signature square pizza (thanks to the auto plants).

Each and every one of these places in turn influences what pizza will look like tomorrow. While Neapolitan and New York–style pizza have toured the globe, new ingredients and new methods will continue to shape the pizza of the future. Young predicts that bakeries will have a big hand in what happens to pizza next: Bakers all over the world are already rethinking what classic pizza dough should be.

“It’s not just New York or Tokyo,” Young says. “You have great pizza in Nagoya, Japan, or Flagstaff, Arizona, or Asheville, North Carolina. Great pizza takes one very committed geek to say, ‘I’m just going to learn how to do this,’ and have high standards and work at it for 6 to 8 months, locked up in a basement or something. That geek can just as soon be in Asheville as in Brooklyn.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.