A Detroit Chain Pizza Pilgrimage

A Detroit Chain Pizza Pilgrimage

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Ypsilanti, MI is located somewhere between the state’s larger cities, Detroit and Ann Arbor. It has the feel of a small town with a slightly more diverse edge thanks to several colleges located nearby. I found myself in Ypsilanti on a bit of a quest a few weeks ago, smack in the middle of my massive Detroit pizza crawl. There’s no incredible pizza in Ypsilanti, but it’s an incredibly important pilgrimage for any pizza lover. Ypsilanti, MI is the birthplace of Dominos

I didn’t stop in Ypsi (their abbreviation, not mine) because I’m a huge fan of Dominos. Anyone who knows me understands that my interest is in the cultural significance of this and other national chains. (I even got a job there one time just to get a better understanding of where they fit into the pizza landscape!) Today, they’re a huge company with strong stock and massive nationwide appeal. But back in 1960, it was just a single store in a moderately sized college town run by an extraordinarily ambitious founder named Monaghan. Actually, it wasn’t even Dominos at that point. 

Monaghan originally took over a pizzeria called DomiNick’s located at 507 West Cross St. You can see it in the photo below. 

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The original building is still at 507 West Cross St, but looks completely different now. Actually, there is no longer a 507, but the burrito place int he photo below covers both 507 and 509 (although it’s listed as 509, skipping 507). You can line up a few key visuals to match up the photo below with the one above. The parking meter has been replaced, but it’s in the same spot. You can also see the steps leading up to the door at DomiNick’s with a matching feature at the current burrito bar. Finally, you can see the bay window in the house on the opposite corner if you zoom tightly into the modern photo. OK, now that I’ve proven the very necessary point that the buildings in both photos are the same, we can move on.

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A larger space became available down the block just a few years later so Monaghan moved DomiNick’s to 301 West Cross St. The original owner of Dominick’s opened a few more stores and asked Monaghan to change the name of his since the product wasn’t the same and some customers were confused. Now at the 301 West Cross St location, he changed the name slightly as not to lose all customer memory in 1965. The newly branded Domino’s Pizza (note the apostrophe, which they later dropped), started franchising shortly thereafter. 

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The amazing Victorian house behind it is gone, but the front section that housed the first Domino’s remains. Now it’s a burger place. Think what you want about the quality of the food at Dominos, but they are a hugely influencial company and most of their early innovations happened in this very spot. I got chills. 

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Next up was a chain that doesn’t get much love these days. Whenever I mention Little Caesars, people are surprised to hear it’s still in business despite it being the third largest pizza chain in the U.S. Still, it’s not on the radar for most people I run into. It’s pretty wild that the first Little Caesar’s location is just minutes from the first Domino’s, but the difference is that Little Caesar’s Store #0001 is still in business! 

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I’ve lived in two consecutive apartments in Brooklyn that had no closer pizzeria than a Little Caesars yet I have never stepped foot inside either (except the one time I asked for a limited edition pizza box). I can’t imagine the Brooklyn locations being anything like LC’s Store #0001. It could just have been its midwestern charm that made the place do damn inviting, but I prefer to give credit to the pride the employees of this landmark location must feel. I think it’s also a corporate store and the ones in Brooklyn are franchises. Come to think of it, I did eat a Little Caesar’s pie back in 2014 when we did our Team SPT chain pizza showdown. That was a bad night

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I wasn’t even planning on ordering a pizza. I was going to snap some photos, breathe in the original location air, then be on my way to Ann Arbor for more pizza. But i figured if ever there was a time to try Little Caesar’s pizza, it was now. So I ordered a $5 hot and ready pizza meal. Only one major problem – there were no pizzas on deck! What some may have seen as a major failure of “ready” was to me a major plus. I would be getting a fresh pie, the best version of this carry-out chain. 

A few minutes went by and I took my $5 half-pie out to the car to swallow my pride and take a bite of a pizza I once feared. When I lifted the lid of the box, I saw a classic Detroit caramelized crust encasing the entire pizza. Little Caesar’s only added this pie in 2014, but I only have to assume the style has on their radars since the early days (LC’s first opened 13 years after the first Detroit style pan pizza was served at Buddy’s). 

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You have to admit, that pizza is a beauty. I don’t want to know the calorie count, but I don’t really care because this is fast food pizza and I know what I’m getting into when I eat fast food. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed eating this. It was soft and pillowy inside, with a nice crunch along the base and outer ridge. I could have managed without the pepperoni, but it comes as a default on this pie. Fair enough. We all know the real feature here is the caramelized ridge of crust. So delicious. 

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My visit to Ann Arbor was 98% to see some friends (and eat fancy pizza with them), but of course they insisted on accompanying me to the first Cottage Inn pizzeria location. This location at 12 East William was the first Cottage Inn and claims to have been the first restaurant in Ann Arbor to serve pizza when it opened in 1948. They now have 50 stores in Michigan and Ohio but plan to expand drastically, with plans for 400 new stores across the US and internationally over the next 15 years. I didn’t eat at Cottage Inn but I did peek inside and that only reinforces my decision to skip the food. 

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I probably should have made the same decision at the final stop on this Michigan fast food pizza tour. With some time to kill before my tour of the Motown Museum, I squeezed in a slice at the local Detroit style pan pizza chain Jet’s Pizza. This is a local chain that opened in 1978 but didn’t franchise until the 1990s. It has the feel of an independent pizzeria that’s trying to go corporate. The big difference here is that pizza os available by the slice! Big plus for me since I had been eating pizza constantly for days at this point. 

Unlike Little Caesars, Jet’s had Detroit style pan pizza on their menu on day 1, with its tell-tale caramelized cheese ridge. There was nothing memorable about the slice I ate other than it was puffy and comforting. Not that those traits don’t have any value, but it wasn’t the value I was hoping for. Not bad in a pinch, but this is not destination pizza.

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The one thing I will say about the pizza here is that the cheese gets a perfect melt. There’s even browning and a nice cascade affect along the edge. I wonder if I would have had more success with a fresh pie rather than a reheated slice, but I’ll have to wait for my next Detroit trip to find that out for myself. 

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In the meantime, I’ll just leave this here for your enjoyment. I think this shot really captures the essence of Jet’s. 

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