The 12-hour drive between New York and Chicago is filled with microregions of pizza. It's partly a matter of U.S. geography, but it's more about immigration, as different villages of Southern Italy emptied into the industrial belt along the Great Lakes, bringing their own ideas with them.
My own people are from Cirella, at the bottom of the laces on the boot. In Brier Hill—the Italian neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio—they still make the type of mozzarella-less pies my dad carried up to be baked in the communal brick oven, which are topped with Sunday sauce and pecorino.
Up in Detroit, where so many Sicilians settled, they bake their pizzas in square pans. The Motown version, which some call "Nonna style," is currently taking over the pizzaverse. It's been called "the new hipster horror" by the New York Post and "the Best Pie You've Never Had" by Vice's Munchies. Even Apizza Scholls' Brian Spangler is working on a version—I had the pleasure of previewing it under embargo.
Obsessive categorization is for fascists, and so one of our square pizzas is round. But, generally, this strain is baked in a pan and has a spongy, medium-thick crust that's been allowed to develop an airy crumb structure. It's topped with sauce (often gravylike), and a blanket of extra-fatty cheese that has the same warmth and thickness of a nice Patagonia fleece. Some folks put the sauce on top, Chicago style. Some oil the pan until the bottom of the pie is focaccia-esque. Some cut it so there are square slabs with no crust, which I imagine is a little unnerving if you're not used to it.
Here are six spots in our region that dabble in the form.
1. East Glisan Pizza Lounge
8001 NE Glisan St., 971-279-4273, eastglisan.com. Detroit pizzas available 4 pm-midnight on Tuesdays.
East Glisan had two problems: Slow Tuesdays and delicate, thin-crust pizza that wouldn't fare well at the many Montavilla neighborhood events to which it was invited. So owner Kristen Martha Brown came up with a plan. Enter the Detroit pie, a regional delicacy that had its big breakthrough when a guy named Shawn Randazzo won first place at the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. It worked—East Glisan was crowded on our visit. Most tables had a square pan, and no one was wearing a Tigers cap.
East Glisan has been working on the squares since the summer of '16. It's made weekly tweaks, especially in the past few months. Through trial and error, it's made the best Detroit pie in town, a traditional red-top with a hearty, deep red sauce made special for this pie that's applied in careful rows atop a thick blend of mozzarella and brick cheese. It has crispy cupped pepperoni and, most importantly, it's nailed the crust, allowing a little cheese to crisp into a cracker on the edge of the pan. Each pie is four filling slices served atop a metal cookie-cooling rack for between $10 and $14.
2. Baby Doll
835 SE Stark St., 503-459-4450, babydollpizza.com. Nonna-style pizzas available all the time: 11 am-midnight Tuesdsay-Thursday, 11 am-3 am Friday-Saturday, 11 am-11 pm Sunday.
Where I grew up, the massive squares that Baby Doll calls "Nonna-style" were called party pizzas—they were what you had after soccer games or at school functions.
At this Southeast Stark Street pizzeria, which recently tripled its seating space by taking over the former Bonfire next door, the kitchen presses its normal dough into a thick layer and takes a heavy hand with the cheese. The house pepperoni curls up into what another writer so aptly dubbed "grease chalices."
For my taste, the crust is just a little too thick and too greasy on the bottom. It could also use a dab more marinara and about a minute less in the oven, so that the top of the crust has just a vague hint of doughiness. But a $21 pepperoni gets you a week's worth of food—just like Grandma would want.
3. Detroit Pizza
308 E Main St., Battle Ground, Wash., 360-687-4778, detroitpizzabg.com. 3:30-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-1:30 pm and 3:30-10 pm Friday, 11 am-10 pm Saturday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday.
Washington state's hottest pizzeria right now is a place called Dino's Tomato Pie in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, which does a Sicilian-inspired square pan pizza it calls "Jersey grandma style." Dino's is pretty good—though not as good as East Glisan. Up in the exurb of Battle Ground, there's a small-town delivery shop doing ultra-hip Detroit pizza without realizing it's on-trend.
This shop is staffed by teenagers (a page torn out of the community newspaper informs us that four of them made honor roll), and on our Friday night visit, they were churning out takeout for local dads. The pies are good: robust sauce and cheese, plenty of toppings and a soft, bready crust. Everything could use a little more character. Also, Portlanders should be warned that there's no place to eat onsite—so during swimming-hole season, as charming Lewisville Park is just 8 minutes away.
4. Ex Novo
326 N Flint Ave., 503-894-8251, exnovobrew.com. Detroit-style pizzas available 3-9 pm (it switches to a "late-night menu" an hour before closing at 10 pm) and weekends from 2-9 pm (it offers a pizzaless brunch menu before that).
This NoPo nonprofit brewery has a refreshingly oddball menu, including 8-inch Detroit-style mini-pies. It's $2 to add pepperoni, and $2 more if you want to add weird stuff like green chiles, chard, smoked beets or stout smoked figs.
The cheese-on-top pies are short but thick, which leads to an inconsistent crust. The edges of our crust ended up overdone, and the pepperoni was laid in a thick layer but lacked the crispness we've come to appreciate in the other pies on this list. But the most unfortunate feature was the over-sugared sauce, which swirled with soupy cheese to form a sinkhole at the center of the pie.
2128 SE Division St., 971-544-7878, scottiespizzaparlor.com. Delfino squares available during normal hours: 11:30 am-9 pm Sunday-Friday, 11:30 am-midnight Saturday.
Scott Rivera, the proprietor of this tiny Division Street pizzeria, is the kind of pizza geek who stocks the shelves of his shop with pizza books, so he'd probably object to having his "Jersey-style" Delfino rated against the other pies here. It's square, so here we are.
This thinner, Sicilian-inspired pie is vegetarian and uses a simple sauce that's basically just brightly acidic crushed tomatoes. Onto that are tossed lots of fresh basil and pungent garlic oil. It eats more like a spice cabinet than a pizza, with the sauce and bready crust overwhelmed by the onslaught of herbs. It's loaded up with gooey fresh mozzarella and a little pecorino, but for me, umami didn't come through like I'd want.
6. Pizza Jerk
5028 NE 42nd Ave., 503-284-9333, pizzajerkpdx.com. Cast-iron pies available 11:30 am-9 pm daily.
The problems with the cast-iron pies at Bunkwich man Tommy Habetz's Pizza Jerk are many. The place doesn't make its own dough (any of it—consider that while reading Andrew Knowlton's best new restaurants feature in Bon Appetit), which works out fine for the thin, round pies. But here the dough develops into a thick knot of gluten that you have to gnaw on like a dog with a pizzle stick.
They're also round. There's a practical reason other pies of this stripe are square: The longer baking time required means the cheese tends to melt and pool in the middle of the pan. Here, that means the center is soggy and the edges are dry and cheeseless.
That beautiful bark on the edge of a Detroit pie is made with crisped cheese, but Jerk has attempted to re-create it using…dough. So we have a crust ringed with bitter, burnt bread. It's painfully bad, though it does look great on Instagram.