In this multi-part series, Jeff Smokevitch of Brown Dog Pizza and Blue Pan Pizza reminisces on how he came to serve Detroit-style pizza for a living
My journey to Detroit-style pizza is personal.
Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, pizza was a staple of my childhood. I had to have it. I had to have LOTS of it. One of my most vivid childhood memories is finally figuring out the location of my family’s local pizzeria. I was approximately eight years old, and while I remember it being a summer day, I thought it was Christmas.
Taking side streets, I biked to that pizzeria every day that I possibly could. I could not wait to get there and spend the money I’d earned from my paper route and lawn service.
I would walk in, barely able to see over the counter, and tell the old lady at the cash register that I wanted a corner slice. I didn’t know it at the time, but I loved those corner slices because they provided the perfect balance of caramelized cheese, sauce, cup-and-char-pepperoni and dough.
Eventually, I stopped ordering the corner slice because I could see I was starting to annoy that old lady. However, as soon as the pizza was in my hand, I devoured it. It was like the world stopped for the few seconds it took me to inhale that slice.
To this day, whether it’s emphasizing great service or ensuring the quality of my favorite corner slices, the experience of eating at that pizzeria guides my choices and decisions as a pizzeria owner.
To me, pizza represents family. To my parents, Friday night was family night. To me it was pizza night! My dad and mom valued family and wanted my brother, sister and I to realize we always had each other.
Some nights we would go out for dinner. My fondest childhood memories were dining in at a local pizzeria named Alibi. This place was like sitting at an Italian family member’s kitchen table. It was warm; it was home. When you walked in people knew your name. When I think of Alibi I hear my sister’s high-pitch laughter, I see my brother blowing out birthday candles, I feel my mother giving me, at the time, an unwanted hug. This is all because of pizza.
We weren’t rich, so most Friday nights we would have game night, movie night, or some ridiculous activity. The games were fun, but I was more excited about the pizza.
I grew up in the 80s, which paralleled the growth and takeoff of pizza delivery. My family definitely contributed to the success of pizza delivery. For Domino’s and Little Caesars, our home was a regular stop on the pizza route. And like Pavlov’s dog, when the doorbell rang I began to salivate. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the pizza, often at the expense of my family’s hunger. In fact, pizza is the only reason I can remember my father being very upset with me.
As a growing high school football player, I wanted to gain weight. This particular Friday night we ordered my favorite pizza. I opened the door, paid the driver and took the two boxes of large pizza. Unfortunately for my family, only one box made it to the kitchen because I ate one of the entire pizzas before my family knew what happened.
Even if my dad and family had not forgiven me for scarfing an entire pizza, I look back at my adolescent years and realize pizza was an innocent bystander in many of our family’s most touching moments.
After leaving the family nest, I attended the University of Michigan. During this time, my infatuation with pizza continued.
I was fortunate to play varsity football there, and the days were hard. The typical day included several hours of rigorous classes and grueling practices.
Finally finished with the long, arduous day of being a college athlete, I wanted food that was good, inexpensive and fast. On many nights, pizza was my only
option, and I loved eating it.
This love for eating pizza peaked during my senior year as I ate one large, 16-inch pizza every night for two consecutive weeks (a record that still stands today amongst my college teammates). The meal was always better when I ordered after midnight because they delivered for free.
While it was not a healthy style of living I would recommend today, I was so happy to binge eat pizza at every possible moment. The binge eating only increased after I received a football scholarship (my teammates often dined at one of the local pizzerias).
None of the pizzerias offered Detroit-style pizza; however, my college experience taught me that when food is good, patrons will eat it regularly.
As you’ll see in next month’s installment, I’d one day put that knowledge to use in a way I’d never imagined: by opening my own pizzeria and becoming a restaurateur. Funny how life puts a path in front of you, isn’t it? Be sure to read February’s article and I hope to see you at my Detroit-style pizza demo at International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The demo is Wednesday, March 6 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Jeff Smokevitch co-founded and currently operates Brown Dog Pizza and Blue Pan Pizza in Denver, Colorado.
Read Jeff Smokevitch’s Detroit-style Part II and III: