On the face of it, there’s not much reason to get excited about a Detroit-area pizza chain opening its twelfth location in Pittsfield Center, the urban-wannabe retail row fronting Meijer on Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. But on a chilly April night, the wait for a table at Buddy’s Pizza was forty minutes.
Buddy’s claims to have created “the original Detroit-style square pizza” nearly seventy-five years ago. And Detroit style, distinguished by thick but airy crust edged by crispy caramelized cheese along its sides and four corners, has recently been rising from regional to national fame. TV food shows feature it, and recipes come up online, including how-to videos on YouTube. At the trendy Revival Food Hall in Chicago’s Loop, a couple blocks from where “Hamilton” has been selling out all year, a full-wall schematic explains Detroit-style pizza construction, beginning with a heavily oiled square metal pan, then generous layers of dough, sauce, cheese, toppings, and more sauce.
Little Caesars accelerated recognition of Detroit-style by taking mass-market deep-dish crusty-cheesed pies to all fifty states. Their 2013 press release tells an interesting Motor City origin story, explaining that today’s square pans are an adaptation of “the assembly line trays first used to make deep-dish pizza in the Motor City years ago,” delivering “Detroit-style crunch.” Buddy’s stakes its own, decades earlier, claim with a “wall of fame” proclaiming the impressive awards its pizza has garnered.
Waiting and reading, waiting and taking in the decor nostalgic for both the original Detroit Buddy’s and Italian village life in general, waiting and getting more and more hungry, I finally saw seats open up at the bar right under a big TV with the hockey game we wanted to watch. We returned our pager and marched to the bar accompanied by strains of “Happy Birthday” coming from the Bocce Ball Room event space.
That turned out to be a good move, because the chatty bartender was a skilled up-seller in the best way; he seemed to really know and like Buddy’s food. Wanting us to like it too, he even went into the kitchen to check the recipe when he overheard us wondering about ingredients in the soup. Let the record show: Buddy’s hearty minestrone is made with herbs, elbow macaroni, small-cut zucchini, and garden veggies, but–our tasting confirmed–definitely no mushy peas. It was a promising start.
We would order pizza, of course. But the breadth of the menu and enthusiasm of our new best-friend bartender (and Uber driver, it turned out) led us to also order lasagna and a big salad. “Wow,” he said appreciatively, pushing condiment racks away to make room. A square of spinach lasagna came swamped in the sauce of my choice (marinara), broiled with cheese and blackened at the edges.
The mystery of how Buddy’s could quickly produce a baked dish like lasagna with any of several sauces was solved after the first bite, when I saw that the pale layers of cheese and noodles had no sauce in the mix. Not the way I (or grandmas everywhere) make it, but the plentiful marinara was thick and flavorful, so I dredged every forkful through and tried to forgive the bland nakedness of the noodle stacks.
No apologies were needed for a big seasonal-special avocado club salad. Fresh romaine and mixed greens were topped with plentiful grilled chicken strips, bleu cheese, avocado slices, hard-boiled egg, and lots of bacon. Little pieces of avocado mixed into the ranch dressing heightened the flavor.
On that visit and another, I sampled four varieties of that famous square pizza. Hands-down most compelling was the “Lake Superior,” an entry in Buddy’s “Great Lakes Pizza Collection.” Tomato-basil sauce, pepperoni, pine nuts, fresh basil, signature browned brick-cheese edges, and a Sicilian spice blend provided texture and complexity to stand up to the doughy crust. By comparison, a simple pizza topped with only seasoned ground beef was like eating an open-face cheeseburger. The “Lake Huron” was a bit challenging because the centered dollop of “spinach-artichoke blend” was unexpectedly creamy and made for a drippy mess (to be safe, treat this as fork pizza); the beautiful roasted tomatoes and fresh spinach on the top saved this version for me.
Which brings us to a major–and unexpected–positive in the Buddy’s experience: they’re not resting on their legacy of fried-cheese edges. The menu acknowledges progressive preferences with healthy options. Vegan cheese, kale, and beets are listed among the toppings. There’s a “Florine” (as in Mark, from Weight Watchers) pizza with fat-free cheese and vegetables. Crust is available gluten-free or multigrain. The latter was recommended by the bartender and proved to be wonderful on a Margherita-style with diced tomato, garlic, and fresh basil.
Browned cheese crustiness at the edges adds interest to that massive spongy crust, as do the sturdy sauce and high-quality toppings. I can see why people would go to Buddy’s just for this–instead of trying to make it at home with their Detroit-style pan, available for $356 online via Sam’s Club. (Really.)
While the crust keeps Buddy’s first in the hearts of old-timers, what I liked most is its willingness to change with the times. My order will be on thin multigrain crust every time.
3153 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd.
Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Appetizers, soups, sandwiches, and salads $3.49-$11.99; pasta $7.99-$13.49; pizza $9.49-$21.49.