At the beginning of 2020, Manchester’s emerging pizza scene had become robust yet notoriously Neapolitan. Barely a crust in town was torn that didn’t originally hail from the Amalfi Coast and it was difficult to see how this obsession with San Marzano’s and fior di latte would ever cease.
But, as with all things 2020, something totally unexpected reared its head and completely changed the game.
In February, Nell’s began to swerve everyone’s attention towards their paper plate drooping (and very substantial) New York slices, converting a corner of the Northern Quarter into deepest Brooklyn. However, come September, a much more Mid Western style of pizza motored into Manchester, catching us all off guard, in a manner typically befitting of its hometown.
Between Ford, General Motors, Motown and Iggy Pop, Detroit has made a habit of flipping pop culture on it’s head, both on the roads and the airwaves, as an automotive and musical colossus of a city. But food isn’t ordinarily something that people outside of the Motor City associate with it. Yet as the autumn of 2020 approached, some cheese crowned focaccias from Failsworth were catching fire in a big way, thanks to Frank Brashaw and Danny Broadbent and their pandemic pizzeria, Corner Slice.
“I could have tried to make Neapolitan pizza, but would it have been as good as Rudy’s? No. Would it have been as good as Ciaooo? No. But can we be the best to make Detroit style pizza? Well, yeah. Although we’re the only place in Manchester doing it (laughs), but we’re setting a standard of our own.”
This was how Danny revealed his approach to the pair’s rectangular panned plans, when we first visited them in September, only a week after they launched Corner Slice.
“It was risky, because people could have just gone ‘that’s not pizza, it’s not round. The sauce is on the top of my cheese? Take it back and start again,’” Danny stated at the time, hot on the heels of a sellout first week. It would be the first of many weeks where stocks were depleted long before closing time every day. Fast forward six months and, despite multiple lockdowns and about a thousand different tiers, the masses are still flocking to the Failsworth suburbs for their Detroit deep pan fix.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” adds Frank when we caught up last week, reminiscing over a whirlwind half year and looking ahead to what is going to be an equally chaotic 2021. “We started by taking a big risk selling our cars and putting every penny we had into this little shell of a space, scraping together enough to get open and we’re humbled by how well received its been. For other people to see what we’ve done and believe in the product and idea the same way as we do shows we were right to take the risk.
“Quite honestly, we weren’t prepared for how busy we were when we opened. When full lockdown came into force, we took a big hit on the drinks side but the regulars and beyond have kept us going and the support has far surpassed what we could have ever expected.”
But what is it about this Michigan delicacy that has so enraptured the Mancunian public over the last few months? How have the caramelised crusts of Detroit begun to dominate the pizza landscape in our city so rapidly? Perhaps it should come as no surprise, given how ‘red tops’ have surged in popularity across the United States over the past few years, as chronicled by the likes of Gloria Dawson last April , and Esquire’s Omar Mamoon, who published a pretty definitive guide of where to find the best Detroit style pies just under a year ago.
“For us it’s how free you can be creatively with the toppings as you don’t have the tradition of Neapolitans to abide by,” explains Frank. “It gives you an amazing opportunity to have fun with the menu and keep people interested.
“You can step away from the salami and the San Marzano and smash some Kimchi on a pizza without judgement.
“The most recent special the Giovanni has been flying out, it’s basically a Meatball Marinara. But the King has to be The Beast from the Middle East, which was based on a Turkish pizza called Lahmacun.”
Such diverse topping experimentation is certainly a far cry from the Detroit pie’s humble origins at Buddy’s Rendezvous, a Motor City speakeasy, which developed the dish just after the Second World War for returning soldiers who had experienced something similar during their time in Sicily.
To replicate the Sicilian sfincione, Buddy’s owner August ‘Gus’ Guerra picked up a drip tray from a local automative suppliers, ordinarily used to collect nuts and bolts, and got to work. Seventy five years later and the simple pepperoni pie at Buddy’s has now metamorphosised into all manner of wild and wonderful toppings, as attested by the lads at Corner Slice and also proudly on display from the team at Four Side Vegan Pizza, who made a huge meat and dairy free leap into the rectangular pizza game in January 2021.
“There are world-class Neapolitan and New York style pizza places in Manchester who really nail what they do,” begins Four Side founder Dan Hope, who also helms luxury doughnut haunt Krum and the sensational Firebird Hope in his burgeoning vegan empire. “The natural progression is to look at other styles – to keep moving things forward. Detroit style had started to trend hard in cool places in the States and it was inevitable that it would start to make inroads over here. Detroit is such a visual style too – perfect for instagram – we think that this has a lot to do with its growing appeal. Most importantly though, it’s damn delicious.”
Similarly to Corner Slice, when it comes to toppings, the shackles are well and truly off at Four Side, with everything from black sesame to pomegranates to pickled carrots to ‘Char Siu’ tofu decorating their dough.
“We look everywhere for inspiration. Nothing is off limits, other than meat and dairy. We’re all very interested in food and we love spending development time together in the kitchen. Its a team effort – if were not all in agreement, it doesn’t go on the menu.
“Being a vegan business has definitely opened up the creative process. We’re not strict adherents to the Detroit style and we’re enjoying having fun with it.”
Homed in what was formerly the iconic Earth Cafe, a stalwart of the Northern Quarter for over 25 years, in the basement of the Manchester Buddhist Centre, Four Side have hit the ground running and are quickly proving to be a true lockdown success story.
“Three of us, Jess, Tristan and myself, used to work together in the kitchen at YES, where we made a lot of pizza. Tristan had been banging the drum for a Detroit style pie for as long as we’d known him – he was always experimenting and trying out different techniques in the kitchen. We talked about him starting a business and how well it would take off in Manchester. We decided to take the idea seriously during the first lockdown and here we are.
“We’re super grateful for the welcome we’ve received. We were terrified by the uncertainty of opening a new business during a lockdown and it’s such a relief that the response to Four Side has been positive so far. The support from all angles has been phenomenal – the Manchester Buddhist Centre, the press, our customers, the vegan community and our friends and mentors in the Manchester pizza world.
“It’s a huge honour stepping into the Earth Cafe space and something we take very seriously. We were regulars at Earth Cafe and always felt a little bit better about the world after having lunch down there – we hope we can recreate that feeling for our guests when we are able to open the doors in May.”
And for every miso-buttered BANGER slung from Four Side or beef short rib topped creation curated by Corner Slice, there has to be those who keep it old school. Those bastions of tradition who do things simply but also do them very, very fucking well. And for those of you who have managed to snag one of their ‘blink and you’ll miss ’em’ collection slots over the past few weeks, you will know just how fucking well the team at Ramona are doing Detroit pizzas.
Being situated in an old garage doesn’t get more authentically Detroit, maintaining the Motor City vibe opposite Mackie Mayor while still under construction for a site that will eventually include a beer garden, campfire, margarita bar and firehouse. Ramona is without doubt one of the most exciting new venues to bless Manchester in a long time. The festoon lights illuminating an expansive outdoor area, beckoning in passers by as the queues begin to snake onto Swan Street.
The menu is short and sweet, with a couple of pepperoni offerings (one drizzled in hypnotic homemade hot honey), a Margherita, marinara, Hawaiian, veggie and mushroom supplemented by signature effort ‘The Jabba’, coated in Finocchiona salami, ‘nduja, jalapeños and sweet peppers. As founder Adelaide Winter explains, Ramona are just getting started.
“There’s a lot more to come and there were so many ideas that didn’t make it. We’re just starting out. We want to make our pizza the best it can be and do things properly. We get a bit better everyday and will keep trying new things.
“We first saw Detroit style in the states. We loved everything about it. Especially because it’s so good with a beer. Then we got onto making sauces and learning about focaccia. Then there’s the dipping sauces. All proper pizzerias have their own house sauces. We make ours fresh everyday and have seven now and counting. Detroit pizza is for dipping and dunking. “
It’s hard to disagree when that first hit of hot honey passes your lips, numbing them like a hundred tiny bee stings, but in a good way. Does that make sense? Probably not. All common sense and rational thought abandons you when you’re slathering lashings of Ramona’s house honeys over your ‘za, accentuating the deep porcine notes of the perfectly crispy, chewy ‘roni cups with a delicate, sugary blanket. Yes I’m drooling like a hungry Homer Simpson as I type this.
The surroundings at Ramona perhaps further exemplify why Detroit style pizza has found such a natural home in Manchester. The cities are inextricably linked through their shared, rich musical and industrial histories, populated by a multicultural mix of grafters and artists, finding beauty in the bricks and mortar. An old mechanic’s garage being gutted and fitted to house a pizzeria where people can throw back slices, bevvies and dance until past midnight couldn’t sum up the shared attitudes of the two cities any better.
Detroit pizza is here to stay. Long may it last.