Farmington Hills, Michigan: Tomatoes Apizza, a Gem Hidden in Plain Sight
OK. One of the things I love about Tomatoes Apizza is its downright dowdy exterior. That might not be the best picture above, but I think you get the point. It's just so damn ordinary. Tucked away in the back corner of a Farmington Hills, Michigan, strip mall that has seen better days, it doesn't necessarily cry out to you to stop in. You could easily be forgiven for motoring down 14 Mile Road right past it.
You would be doing yourself a huge disservice were you to do that, however, because behind this unremarkable façade is some of the best pizza in the U.S.
It's not the awesomely oily Detroit-style square pizza that Michiganders may be used to (and that we have covered recently here on Slice); it looks instead to the east for inspiration — specifically toward New Haven, Connecticut, where its owner, Mike Weinstein, learned his craft.
I'm not sure how much folks in the Wolverine State know about Connecticut pizza. Given my own upbringing in another Midwestern state, I suspect not much. We Midwesterners don't particularly go out of our way to keep up with what a handful of small states back east cram down their gullets. I suspect Mr. Weinstein probably sensed this, too, and so the entryway of the otherwise sparsely decorated pizzeria is a sort of mini museum dedicated to New Haven pizza-makers. A framed one-sheet tells the tale of Connecticut "apizza" (pronounced ah-beetz) and gives Mr. Weinstein's pizza pedigree. This Culinary Institute of America grad got his chops under Lou Abate (Abate Apizza), who learned from Joe Abate, whose knowledge came from Salvatore "Sally" Consiglio (Sally's Apizza), who in turn worked for his uncle Frank Pepe at the original and eponymous Frank Pepe's. Got all that? Good.
If you still need a visual cue to tell you that, yes, this is New Haven–style pizza, take a gander at the giant stockpile of anthracite coal stacked along the wall. Many New Haven pizzerias use this fuel to fire their superhot ovens, and Tomatoes does the same, albeit with a gas-assist.
Not that you need to understand that history or the oven type to understand that what you're eating is great pizza.
The crust is a dead ringer for its New Haven progenitors — thin, crunchy-chewy, flavorful, and strong enough to stand up to the generous amount of sauce ladled on and mozzarella cheese laid atop it. There's perhaps a bit more sauce and cheese than you'd find on a native New Haven pie, but Tomatoes knows its audience; a more restrained pizza probably wouldn't play as well as it does with hardscrabble New Englanders.
That's if you get a "Classic," which is what I'm guessing most hearty Midwesterners would default to. (Heck, that's what I got.) It's worth noting that in New Haven, the default pizza, a "plain pie," is served without mozzarella cheese — just sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan. That pie's here on the menu, too, as the "Red." Mr. Weinstein has smartly adapted his menu nomenclature for those unfamiliar with New Haven peculiarities.
There are two Tomatoes Apizza locations in Farmington Hills. I went to the one on 14 Mile Road, which has a massive coal-fired brick oven. The one on Halstead Road is simply listed as "brick" on the Tomatoes website. I have not had pizza from that location, except for the one time a visiting chef friend of Serious Eats (Brian Polcyn) brought a few slices of it to NYC with him. It would hardly be a fair comparison to say that the fresh-from-the-oven pizza was better than the "delivery" pizza, and I wish I would have had more time to do a head-to-head comparison, but I'm sure some Michigander Slice'rs out there could tell us how they stack up. Maybe Summerfield? He once said that, "Tomatoes is pizza crying out in the wilderness."
I guess that would depend on if you thought the Detroit was a pizza wilderness. After recent trips to the area, Slice doesn't, but we're glad to see this novel style of pizza stake a claim in the Midwest.