Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
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Pizza is a meal that both unifies and divides diners. The answer to many get-togethers, layering sauce, cheese and toppings over dough is simple enough. However, its execution is hotly debated. Thin crust or deep dish? Anchovies or pineapple (or neither)? Round or square?
Detroit-style pizza, which has been growing in popularity, is the American cousin to Roman- and Sicilian-style pizzas. Characterized by their distinctive square shape, all versions of these angular eats are showing up in Orange County restaurants.
The Origin of Detroit-Style Pizza
Detroit-style squares date back to the mid-1940s, when it is rumored that Anna Guerra adapted her Sicilian mother’s pizza dough recipe for a pie at Buddy’s Rendezvous, a bar owned by her husband Gus. The pizza was baked in repurposed blue steel trays which were normally used by the automotive industry as drip pans or for corralling auto parts. (Blue steel is forged from iron and treated to be rust-resistant.)
Detroit vs. Roman vs. Sicilian Style
They’re all square (often more rectangular), but that is where kitchens draw the line on similarities.
Detroit: Thickest crust. Copious amounts of Wisconsin “brick” cheese to the edges. Toppings are the second layer. Thick red sauce on top. Baked in blue steel pans.
Roman: Thinnest crust. Dough is made with oil and fermented for a long time, creating an airy, yet crunchy chew. Less is more when it comes to adding toppings.
Sicilian: Crust falls between Detroit and Roman. Described as focaccia with toppings. Known to have more sauce, less cheese than a Roman slice.
Even though Guerra worked with Sicilian-style dough, he customized it with a specific blueprint of ingredients, and of course, the rectangular steel pan. A brick of Wisconsin cheddar is shredded, then distributed all around and to the perimeter, creating high, caramelized edges and a golden crust thanks to oil from the cheese. Post-bake, the nearly finished product is then treated to ladled “stripes” of tomato sauce. Non-conformist for sure, Detroit-style manages to be chewy thick, yet simultaneously airy.
Gibroni’s Pizza, San Clemente (Detroit-Style)
Operating out of the kitchen at JD’s Kitchen and Bar five nights a week, Gibroni’s is as close a local can get to true square greatness. A Detroit native, Tony Gioutsos (pronounced YOO-ches) grew up on it: “If you’ve eaten something for a few decades, you know how it should be made and have higher standards because of it. With that in mind, we make everything in-house, from scratch; our dough, our sauce … we make it all.”
Making vegetarian, sausage, pepperoni and classic with basil versions, the gem on their menu is the Caprice Classic. Its eye-catching flavor profile of fig preserves, blue cheese, arugula, prosciutto and balsamic glaze comes together with a swift lemon squeeze right before consumption.
Fun fact: Gibroni, normally spelled jabroni, is New York/Jersey-Italian slang for “asshole” or “loser.”
Beer Pairings: Gibroni’s enjoys pairing their pizza with a duo of San Clemente-based brands. To enjoy their From the D pizza (a double pepperoni), pick up Lost Winds Brewing’s fruited Belgian, BlackBerry Trails. There’s also Artifex Brewing Company’s No Name West Coast IPA. “Big and bitter, pairing well with the spice of our camino bread.” per Gioutsos.
Merenda Pizza, Garden Grove (Roman-Style)
At SteelCraft, a food hall designed with shipping containers in lieu of conventional storefronts, Merenda Pizza opened in September of 2020. Specializing in authentic Roman-style pizza, the 12 by 12-inch pie is sliced into four squares. According to owner Sandro Mezzetti, there are distinguishing factors setting Merenda (Italian for “snack”) apart from the rest.
His housemade dough is a mixture of both white and whole wheat flour fermented for a minimum of 24 hours in a temperature-controlled environment, resulting in a highly hydrated base. The angled pans these are baked in are typical of the pizzerias found back home, imparting a crispness to the crust.
“We strive to have the most similar product to the pizzas you find everywhere around the streets of Roma.” remarks Mezzetti. A hearty sausage and mushroom option, Funghi e Salsiccia, is Merenda’s white pizza. The rest possess a red sauce layer topped with mozzarella and either classic basil, spicy salami or pancetta.
Beer Pairings: Beachwood Brewing’s satellite location, also in the SteelCraft complex, taps an assortment of hop-centric and additional varieties (think seltzers and sours) to appreciate while chowing down. Chief Operating Officer Greg Brown suggests a couple of flavor profiles, the more popular being a light-bodied, West Coast-style IPA named Amalgamator: “A massive dry hop charge of Mosaic hops lays down an aromatic amalgam of passion fruit, blueberry, dank resin and citrus notes.”
To complement Merenda’s sweet basil in its margherita, Brown favors a Belgian-style golden ale known as TWSS which is crafted with a base of German pilsner malt and possesses lively carbonation.
Focaccia Boi, Anaheim (Hybrid)
Owner Derek Bracho of Focaccia Boi originally specialized in bread-only for his online business, but a moment of inspiration convinced him to test out a few pies. “I used to make pizzas for myself using my focaccia dough in the Sicilian/grandma style (similar to Roman style), and I decided to buy a couple [of] high-walled pizza pans like they use in Detroit. Somehow my pizzas blew up and started selling out within minutes.”
He breaks down the differences between his version and the classic variety, starting with the dough — it’s extra moist and studded with rosemary and garlic. With the abundance of fresh produce available, Bracho’s sauce features California-grown tomatoes.
“I try to use organic and local products whenever possible. I’ve partnered with University of California to use their sustainable ANR (Agriculture and Natural Resources) farm in Irvine for produce when I can, which has been a lot of fun,” says Bracho. Sauce is layered beneath cheese – a freshly shredded, proprietary blend.
Note: Focaccia Boi’s cheese-only and pepperoni versions are always on the menu. Other featured pizzas rotate often.
Beer Pairings: Conveniently located a mile away from Focaccia Boi’s driveway, Anaheim’s newest brewery, Radiant Beer Company produces a Bracho-approved Witbier called Blank Slate. “Brewed by industry vets, it won’t weigh you down or blow out your palette. Extremely refreshing,” Bracho commented. His other recommendation: Belgian suds from Pomona-based newbie Homage Brewing. According to Bracho, “They’re doing some of the most exciting beers in California. From wine hybrids to beautifully delicate, lambic-inspired beers. I would sip on any of their offerings.”
Steel Pan Pizza, Stanton (Detroit-Style)
In January 2019, Steel Pan Pizza initiated the square slice frenzy in Orange County when they originally opened at Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market. Co-owner Conrad Malaya takes pride in SPP’s hands-on approach: “Since the beginning, we’ve always made our own dough and sauces, and our vegan cheese.” When prepping their toppings, the team (which includes Joleen Piser and Tony Guereca) roasts and seasons the truffle mushroom blend in their umami-heavy pizza.
When in doubt, Steel Pan’s Nuts and Bolts option feeds the need with pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, olives, onions and bell peppers. I swapped the cheese in my veggie selection for cult favorite vegan cheese, and I didn’t miss a thing. Future iterations may reflect a more traditional composition, according to Malaya. “To this point, our pizza has mostly been inspired by the format of Detroit-style pies, and that hasn’t sat right with us since we opened. As we gained popularity and approval from actual Detroit natives, we felt it was even more necessary to provide something real and authentic.” Look out for a legit Detroit-style pizza crafted with Wisconsin brick cheese plus saucy stripes on top.
Beer Pairings: Conveniently-located, Bearded Tang Brewing’s counter is steps away from Steel Pan at Rodeo 39. Flash your receipt or pager as proof of food purchase to request a pint. Owner Brandon Smith believes in a fresh lager like Lucky Fin, a Japanese Rice Lager or their Tank’d West Coast IPA “to cut through the rich flavors.”
Milana’s New York Pizzeria/Brooklyn Squares, Long Beach (Sicilian-Style)
While researching slices, I learned about another square variation in OC-adjacent Long Beach at Milana’s (Milana’s New York Pizzeria is on 4th Street, and Milana’s Brooklyn Squares is on Ximeno Avenue). Brooklyn Squares specializes in Sicilian-inspired eats. Owner and operator Adriel Fasci explains his naming convention: “We did the Sicilian pizza true to the Sicilian way, which in Sicily only had four corners. It’s a square not a rectangle, although some New Yorkers make it that shape. We call it Brooklyn Square because we put the cheese on the bottom (Brooklyn-style) not the top like Sicilian.” His layering method gives the tomato sauce an opportunity to better roast in the heat, imparting a more robust flavor.
Compared to Detroit-style, Sicilian is definitely saucier and less cheesy. Roman versions are commonly rectangular with a thinner crust (approximately one-quarter of an inch versus Milana’s one-inch thickness). Consider ordering the pepperoni and honey, which captures a messy sweetness in every cupped round of ‘roni.
Beer Pairing: With its Brooklyn squares, Fasci recommends an ale from Long Beach local Trademark Brewing. Called Viking Blonde, this brew includes herbal hop notes and tart lime. It finishes crisp, but with enough bitterness to beckon another taste. Note: Beer is only located at its New York Pizzeria location on 4th Street, yet square slices are available at both sites.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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