How Detroit is changing Pittsburgh pizza as we know it

Because one thick, square-cut pizza shop just isn’t enough.

pizza collage
At left, photos by Jason Waltenbaugh / Courtesy of Iron Born. At right, photos courtesy of Michigan & Trumbull
Rossilynne Culgan

At this time last year, Pittsburgh had never tasted Detroit-style pizza. This year, two Detroit-style pizza parlors call the city home, offering up the Rust Belt delicacy to long lines of pizza lovers who pack their restaurants every week.

There’s a bit of light-hearted rivalry between the two but mostly a mutual admiration and shared respect for the other, each with different backgrounds and different takes on the original. Whether you try Iron Born at Smallman Galley in the Strip District or Michigan & Trumbull at Federal Galley on the North Side (or both — really, you must try both), expect a hearty plateful of sauce-on-top square pizza with a few differences between the two.

The trend adds to the growing list of beloved pizza shops in Pittsburgh — and it adds new layers to the question of how to define Pittsburgh pizza.

So, what is Detroit-style pizza anyway?

Several decades ago, 300-some miles away, a bar owner in Detroit threw together a Sicilian pizza in a blue steel pan used to transport car parts — and a savory star was born.

At Michigan & Trumbull, it’s all about the pan — “it’s a blue steel pan similar to cast iron,” said co-owner Kristen Calverley, who runs the business with her husband Nate Peck.

After undergoing a 16-hour fermentation process with a wet dough style called a “poolish,” the dough is pushed into the pan with a focus on piling dough into each corner. The wet style of dough bakes into a baguette style, a bit different than the traditional pizza crust.

The dough is then topped with a sprinkle of cheese — “I build a wall around the four corners of the pan and then just lightly through the middle.” (Yes, a wall of whole milk mozzarella that bakes into a cheesy crust *cue drooling*.) Next, it’s time for toppings, like petite pepperoni that bows at the edges when cooked, forming tiny grease cups. Finally, each pan takes a h-o-t bake in the oven. The last step: A dot of sauce on each slice.

For Calverley and Peck, their allegiance to Detroit-style pizza spans decades. The two Michigan natives grew up on opposite ends of Detroit, eating what they call “square pizza” (in Detroit, you don’t call the delicacy “Detroit-style pizza,” Calverley explained).

“When we first moved here, we were looking for a square pizza that reminded us of home,” she said. “We would order multiple square pizzas in a day and be like, ‘this isn’t it!’”

So they set out to make their own. Peck ordered a pan from Detroit Style Pizza Co., studied the science of dough and tried “hundreds of different recipes” before landing on their signature style.

Friends tasted their work, and loved it. That’s when they knew they were onto something.

It's all about the pan.

It's all about the pan.

Courtesy of Michigan & Trumbull

With a long background in restaurant experience (Peck cooked at Point Brugge; Calverley cooked at Girasole), the husband-and-wife duo wanted to give to Pittsburgh the pizza they grew up eating. Plus, they saw the excitement about Detroit-style pizza in Brooklyn, and realized if it worked there, it could work in other cities outside of Michigan.

They opened their shop at Federal Galley on the North Side in December with details paying homage to their hometown. Michigan & Trumbull is named for the cross-streets of the original Tigers stadium. Each pizza is named after a Motor City landmark.

“It’s one of these things that tastes like home and transports you for a time when you’re far away,” she said.

For Iron Born, Pittsburgh’s first Detroit style pizza shop, which opened in June 2017, a trip to Telluride — not Detroit — spurred the chef’s love for Detroit-style pizza. On a Colorado vacation, Pete Tolman tried a Detroit-style slice at Brown Dog Pizza and, he said, “it pretty much blew my mind.”

With a background in culinary pursuits at Nemacolin and Giant Eagle Market District, he immediately started working on a recipe, carefully honing it for a year and continuing to tweak it to perfection.

More pizza please.

All the layers.

Photo by Jason Waltenbaugh / Courtesy of Iron Born

“I’ve always loved Sicilian-style pizza, which is the closest derivative,” he said. “It was something that was crispy on the bottom and the edges but a little lighter.”

His process begins with mixing the dough, letting it rest for 24 hours, rounding the dough, and letting it rest again for 24 hours before pressing it into aluminum, non-stick pans. Next up, it’s time for four types of shredded cheese spread to the outside of the pan, then toppings, and finally sauce striped across the top. The result is a spongier, thicker pizza — thicker than the original Detroit-style.

“I think that’s why people say I’m not 100-percent Detroit, but that’s ok with me,” he said.

For Tolman, who grew up in Kittanning, the name Iron Born pays tribute to his local roots. To him, Iron Born means Pittsburgh-born. His pizza is a take on Detroit-style with a little creative license.

He hasn’t been to Detroit yet, but he’s devoured every word he can find to read about the city’s signature dish and plans to visit.

“I think (pizza is) a way to connect with almost anyone,” he said. “I think we have an opportunity to make it unique and really good and of a high quality, and I think people really agree with that. There’s a lot of thought that goes into the pizza before you eat it.”

Currently housed in restaurant incubator Smallman Galley, Tolman’s looking for a local brick-and-mortar space as Iron Born envisions its future, but not to worry — you’ve still got plenty of time to find Tolman’s creations before anything changes.

And yes, he said, there’s room for two Detroit-style pizza shops in Pittsburgh — a town that’s quite passionate about the subject, as evidenced in The Incline’s pizza bracket showdown.

“I think there can be two of us. I’m not worried about it the least bit. I hope we’re both busy,” he said.

Calverley agreed — “there’s room for both us.”

“I think like 99 percent of people have fallen in love with us — not just us, but Iron Born’s success is a testament to that,” she said. “I think there was a huge void in the market for square pizza.”