Detroit: The Guerra Legacy Lives on at Cloverleaf
Cloverleaf Bar & Restaurant
24443 Gratiot Avenue Eastpointe, MI 48021 (map); 586-777-5391; cloverleafrestaurant.com
Pizza Style: Detroit-style
The Skinny: One of the oldest pizzerias in Detroit, started by the man who introduced the world to Detroit-style pizza, Cloverleaf will scratch a pizza-loving itch but ultimately falls short of other local competition.
Price: Small (4 pieces) start at $6.65; Large (8 pieces) start at $12.05
I was faced with a bit of a pizzalemma on my recent trip to Detroit. I'd already been to Buddy's (reviewed here by Adam), Loui's (reviewed here by Maggie), and Niki's (reviewed here by me), which meant there was one Detroit-style pizza legend for me to visit: Cloverleaf Bar & Restaurant. Gus Guerra owned a bar called Buddy's Rendevous when he added pizza to the menu in 1946, purportedly relying on a recipe that came from his Sicilian mother-in-law's recipe. Just seven years later, Guerra sold Buddy's and set up shop across town with Cloverleaf. Today's Cloverleaf is still owned by the Guerra family and is going strong.
But, and here's where my pizzalemma came into play, until recently, there were two additional Cloverleaf locations, both owned by Shawn Randazzo. Randazzo actively promoted the Cloverleaf name for years and made pizzas per the mother ship's requirements. But Randozzo has been refining his own Detroit-style pizza recipe and seems to think he'd come up with a better product. And according to the judges in Las Vegas in March, Randozzo has done a remarkable job; he became the first American since Tony Gemignani in 2007 to be named World Champion Pizza Maker of the Year. At the time of my visit, I received word that the Randozzo/Guerra relationship was soon to end, so I decided to go the Guerra's Cloverleaf. Since my trip, Randozzo has gone out on his own and turned his Cloverleaf locations into the two outposts of his new pizzeria, Detroit Style Pizza Company, which has its official Grand Openings on June 24 and July 1.
As is the case with most, if not all Detroit-style pizzerias, Cloverleaf offers two sizes, a small, which has four pieces, and a large, which has eight. As is also the case with all Detroit-style pizzas, the pies at Cloverleaf feature a crisp and chewy outer edge that is as flavorful as it is a textural joy to eat. Because the outer edges are so good, and because every piece of a small pizza has two delightful edges, it simply makes no sense to order a large unless you're writing a review that demands you explore a broad swatch of the pizza offerings.
My small pizza came topped with pepperoni, onions, and garlic, and stood out in a couple of ways. First, unlike at other classic Detroit pizzerias, the default at Cloverleaf is to put the pepperoni on top of the pizza rather than under the cheese and sauce, which results in crisp and chewy pieces of salty pork that almost makes me like ordinary pepperoni. Unfortunately, in building my pizza, someone on the kitchen got a bit too aggressive with the garlic and that stuff ended up overwhelming the rest of the pizza.
The sausage pizza did not suffer from any overwhelming flavors, but it did suffer from problematic sausage. While Midwestern cities like Chicago and Milwaukee are rightfully known for remarkable sausage, that ground specialty is not as important in Detroit, where pepperoni gets top billings on most menus in old-school pizzerias. These round nuggets were too chewy and had insufficient seasoning. But the thick and rich sauce, though too sparingly applied, added wonderful bursts of herbed tomato flavor that helped made the pizza enjoyable despite the flaws.
Nobody is going to call the crust at Cloverleaf light, but the thick crust is not nearly as heavy as it might look before cutting it open. There's surely a fattening agent of some type mixed into the dough that gives it an extra boost of flavor and some added moisture. That, along with the crisp edges, makes this a piece of bread worth eating, even if it's not quite as good as the crusts at Buddy's and Loui's.
I certainly don't regret visiting Cloverleaf, and judging by the fact that the place was packed when I visited around 4:00 on a Sunday afternoon, it's clear that many Detroiters still hold the place in very high esteem. That said, it doesn't deliver the kind of soul-satisfying comfort that comes with eating at Buddy's and Loui's. As for whether the student, Shawn Randazzo, has actually passed his teachers, that's a question that's going to have to wait until my next trip to Detroit.
About the author: Daniel Zemans is so devoted to Chicago that he covers pizza for Slice and burgers for A Hamburger Today. When he's not focusing on expanding his waistline, he works as a lawyer on behalf of employees and tenants.