Growing up in a sleepy suburb of Detroit, I had never heard of “Detroit-style pizza.” I knew about Coney dogs, Motown music and Tigers baseball, and I knew that my family’s favorite pizza was from a spot called Jet’s, but I didn’t realize its style was unique to my home city.
Jet’s was different from the pizza we picked up from Little Caesars, or from wherever my elementary school teachers would pile up boxes for class parties — it was better. The shape was square, the crust was crispy and greasy, and the cheese was stretchy, thick and full of toppings.
One growing chain out of Brooklyn, Emmy Squared, is seemingly making it their mission to make sure everyone knows what Detroit-style pizza is, and that they fall in love with it, too. They recently opened a spot on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood and it’s easy to see why they’ve been so popular.
Detroit-style pizza, despite being around so long, has held only regional notoriety until recently. Cities across the country are desperate for something different, especially in Charlotte – where most attempts at New York pizza miss the mark and what was a wood-fired niche is now overly oversaturated – there is a populace ready to embrace the Motor City.
Sure, Emmy’s is gaining steam and it was Jet’s deep-dish, Detroit-style pizza that made it out to the ‘burbs, but the tip of hat should be pointed toward the originator of the square pie: a Detroit institution by the name of Buddy’s.
Iconic foods achieve their status by being part addictively delicious, part metaphor — the food represents the essence of the place itself. For instance, the hustle of New York City is embodied in the slice: cheap, available any time and best eaten while standing. The pizza that hails from Detroit started how it inevitably must: with some auto parts. It’s Motor City baby, what else!
As legend tells, it was 1946 and men returning from war in Europe brought with them tales of thick, Sicilian-style pizza squares. They had never tasted anything like it. Gus Guerra, proprietor of local pizza joint Buddy’s Rendezvous, overheard these stories at the bar and wondered if he could make something similar for his shop. After all, no one else in Detroit was doing it.
As luck would have it, Gus’s wife was Sicilian so he had a lead on the dough recipe. But what to bake the thing in? All of his pizza pans were round and flat. Well, some of his buddies thought (I imagine over quite a few beers), “We’ve got these square metal pans at the auto plants. We just use them to hold spare parts. I’m sure we could borrow a couple.”
Those steel pans turned out to be the perfect vessel for Gus’s airy dough, baking it into a golden crust, crisp all around the edges. Gus’s employee Concetta “Connie” Piccinato later helped perfect the recipe, bringing what could have been not much more than a Sicilian knock-off to truly original heights.
Buddy’s delectable innovation has made its way around Michigan and beyond, with local chains like Jet’s bringing a version to the masses and expanding to 19 states, including North Carolina.
Emmy Squared founder Emily Hyland is not from Michigan, but like Gus Guerra, she began her journey in Detroit-style pizza with not much more than an entrepreneurial spirit and desire to bring something new to her community.
Nine years ago, Hyland and her then-husband, Matt, began their burgeoning pizza empire quite humbly with an intimate, neighborhood spot in Brooklyn. Bearing her namesake, Emily still serves up wonderful, thin-crust, wood-fired pizza in a laid back, yet romantic setting. Creative pizzas (her namesake “Emily” is particularly heavenly, topped with truffle cheese, pistachio, and honey), stellar burgers, and a thoughtful wine and beer list are the signatures present from the beginning that can be seen in every restaurant they have opened since.
Looking to expand, they started exploring new flavors and pizza styles. Inspired by the Sicilian “Grandma” slices commonly found in New York pizzerias, they began playing with square pies only to discover that they were the latest in a long lineage of square pan innovators.
Shipping in Buddy’s pizzas from the motherland Michigan itself, a concept took shape and their own recipes brought it to life. In 2016, they opened Emmy Squared, introducing Detroit-style pizza with high-quality ingredients to New Yorkers, and finding an excitable contingent of defecting Michiganders as well. In other words, Emmy tastes like home … but better.
The original Emily is special, but with Emmy they struck gold in an untapped market. As Hyland explains to me, Detroit-style was the better choice for expansion because it is “more replicable, has much more consistency and demands less skilled artisan pizza chefs” — the pizza of the people folks!
Emmy really began to take off after investor Howard Greenstone took interest and became partner and CEO of Pizza Loves Emily. Howard has since led Emmy’s expansion across the northeastern corridor and the South. What has made this partnership successful, according to Hyland, is the commitment to core values. An Emmy restaurant is “familial, nostalgic, community driven and cares about its staff,” according to Hyland. So far, that seems to be the vibes they’re delivering here in Charlotte.
General Manager Deb Ward, who is also from Michigan (because we are everywhere), stopped by my table to share what a warm reception Emmy Squared has received so far. Ward has seen the restaurant packed night after night and is pleased to find a considerate work environment that attracts a kind and happy clientele, she said. This has been a welcome change of pace for her, and many on her new team who have struggled in thankless service industry jobs over the past couple years.
Choosing to open in Charlotte was, according to Hyland, a natural step in their expansion to mid-size cities across the South but she also saw here a real “demand for good food.” Considering the way Charlotteans have shown up in droves already, it seems she was right. With a second location in South End on the way, Emmy Squared is poised to become a new staple of the local restaurant and takeout scene.
It has, of course, been takeout and delivery that has allowed the restaurant to not only survive, but thrive during its pandemic opening. Hyland saw success even in new markets during this challenging time and attributes it to the fact that Emmy offers “comfort food people are accustomed to ordering.”
Hyland said she chose Plaza Midwood because of the neighborhood’s “Brooklyn vibe.” As one of the most walkable and eclectic neighborhoods in Charlotte, I can see the connection. Design elements in the newly opened space, including exposed brick walls and black wooden booths, are importing a bit of Brooklyn cool themselves to this cozy restaurant. The large space employs warm lighting, and a mix of seating arrangements, including couches and a long bar in the back room, to retain a homey feel.
On the menu you will find a wide selection of curated pizzas, red sauce and white sauce. “The Emmy” is not to be missed, topped with banana peppers, red onion and ranch and with marinara dipping sauce on the side — it is your childhood (or stoner) fantasy all grown up. The vodka sauce pizza is another surprising delight. With little more than vodka sauce, cheese and some basil, it packs a punch of flavor.
If you choose to venture away from pizza, the sandwiches and burgers are solid as well, most of which serve as nods to the regional influences Emmy has absorbed. There’s eggplant and chicken parm, a spicy Nashville hot chicken sandwich reflective of the restaurant’s southern home base, a chopped cheese imported from The Bronx, and the Le Big Matt Burger, with the house Sammy sauce.
There is a sizable wine and beer list, including local taps from Resident Culture, Pilot Brewing, and Protagonist, plus cocktails – although, that was the least thrilling part of my meal.
Underwhelming cocktail aside, Emmy Squared is a pizza palace of pleasures. Don’t worry about finishing your bounty all in one sitting, because it tastes just as good heated up for lunch the next day.
As a Michigan native, I’m excited Emmy is bringing its quality, inventive, Detroit-style pizza to so many. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the true potential, and while Buddy’s has plans for expansion as well, there is more than enough space for both chains to thrive. (If you want to try the original, it still ships nationwide.)
If anything, Emmy’s success in Plaza Midwood shows us that Detroit-style is more than a one-off or regional quirk — it’s a genuine style of pizza that is deserving of attention, elevation and iteration.
When I asked Hyland what she wants customers to walk away with, she said she hopes they “feel like it is their neighborhood restaurant.” And I do. From the food, to the crayons for kids to color, to the attentive staff, Emmy Squared is a slice of home, wherever you are from.
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