Mike Stenke is passionate about pizza. Specifically, the pizza he grew up eating in his native Detroit. But, prior to opening Klausie's Pizza, there was nowhere in the Triangle for Mike to satisfy his craving for square pan, deep-dish pizza. So a couple of years ago he took it on himself to replicate the pizza from his hometown, bought a truck, and started selling pies. I caught up with Mike while he was slinging slices outside of Fullsteam Brewery to talk about Detroit pizza and his quest to bring it to the South.
We mentioned Detroit-style in our Regional Pizza Styles Guide, but as I told Mike, prior to the SE mention, I'd never heard of Detroit-style pizza. Mike's response: "Neither has anybody from Detroit. Detroiters don't know their pizza as Detroit-style pizza. They know it as pizza."
Deconstructing The Motor City's Pan Pizza
The Detroit-style, Mike explained, has its origins in 1946 when a man by the name of Gus Guerra, who owned a restaurant called Buddy's Rendezvous (since shortened to Buddy's—reviewed here) was looking for a new way to make pizza. Gus's wife made a Sicilian crust, he baked it in a steel auto parts pan, added the signature cheese and sauce, and Detroit's signature pizza was born. As Mike describes it, Detroit pizza has
a greasy crust, made in a blue steel seasoned pan, with cheese out to the edge, cheese with high butterfat that melts into the crust. And then this nice rich sauce on the top. And all of those layers have to be equal and stand up to each other.
Mike's truck, Klausie's Pizza (named after his son, Klause), is now a Triangle institution. But the whole concept started as a bet between Mike and a fellow Detroiter, Dan Cloos, owner of Cloos' Coney Island, a Raleigh hot dog shop. Both guys were nostalgic for the pizza from Buddy's. Mike claimed he could make the pie. "[Dan] bet me I couldn't do it," Mike said, explaining that he had worked in pizzerias before, but not in a Detroit-style joint. He had never tried to make the pizza before. "Three months later I walk into [Cloos']. I've got a bag in my hand with foil wrapped slices," Mike grinned. "[Dan] just about cried when he smelled it."
It took three months to get the slices right because Mike was starting completely from scratch. He didn't have the right pans. He didn't know how to make the crust. He didn't have the right cheese. And he didn't know what was in the sauce.
The repurposed auto parts pans used to make the original Detroit-style pizza may have been pretty common in the Motor City, but were not nearly as easy to come by down south. And the stainless steel pans are essential to getting the bottom crust brown and crispy: "Aluminum won't get the crunch you need," Mike explained. So he ended up getting a batch of 40 year old pans from a pizzeria in Michigan that was going out of business. After 40 years of seasoning, you'd think that these pans would be ready to go. But, according to Mike, "These pans have to be constantly tended to and cared for. I think that's why there aren't chains of this style. It's very labor intensive just to get the pans right."
Reconstructing the Recipe
Pans in hand, Mike then had to figure out the crust. "The crust has to be airy. It can't be a dense, dense crust," Mike said. Klausie's crust is just that. It's crispy on the underside, soft and slightly chewy in the middle. According to Mike, it's all about hydration level: "Everyone has their secret. Some guys use honey, some sugar, some use egg," Mike told me. He even knows a guy who uses ginger ale. Mike didn't give up his own secret. But whatever it is, it works.
Mike's quest to find the right cheese really exemplifies his dedication to making sure his pizza is perfect. Much like I'd never heard of Detroit-style pizza, I'd also never heard of the cheese Mike uses. The key, Mike told me, is brick cheese. Still confused, I asked if that was mozzarella or provolone or something like that. "That's always the question," was Mike's response. When he called to the cheese distributors in the Triangle to try to find brick cheese, he said they invariably responded, "Sure man. You want cheddar brick? Mozzarella brick? Provolone brick? What kinda brick do you want?" He laughed, "They had no idea."
"I'd like to say it's this artisan cheese, like this incredibly rare craftsman cheese." In a way, brick cheese is just that. Brick, so called because the cheese is pressed under bricks, was developed in Wisconsin and is still only readily available in the Midwest, which made it a challenge for Mike to get his hands on it. Especially at a price that would make selling pizza from a truck feasible.
The problem, Mike told me, is that the cheese has to brown and have a great melt. Mozzarella melts nicely, but only has a light brown. Cheddar will brown, but it doesn't melt properly. Mike started ordering cheeses from dairies up north.
It was really fun. I'd get sample blocks of this dairy's brick and that dairy's brick. And I would do different pizzas and on the pizza I'd do different quadrants. Then we'd have blind taste tests.
Even when he found a cheese that he liked, it was still too expensive to get it shipped down here. The distributors he was talking to tried to sell him on other cheeses, but Mike insisted on brick. "They kept telling me that they had great buffalo mozz and specialty pizza cheeses with potato starches," Mike said. "They couldn't understand where I was coming from."
In the end, Mike called a dairy with a cheese he liked and got their distributors name. Then he found the name of a sister distributor down here. Then he still had to have the distributor here call that distributor up north and say, "yes, you can do that." Mike's perseverance in finding the perfect cheese illustrates his dedication to accurately recreating his beloved Detroit-style pizza.
"Detroit is a tough place. And the sauce has to match that." Klausie's uses a coarse ground sauce that's bright and tomatoey and full of flavor. And, importantly, it's a thick sauce. "You don't put water in your sauce," Mike told me. Because Klausie's pizza has a lot of cheese and a lot of crust, it also has to have a lot of sauce. "There can be no other way," says Mike.
But, just like his quest for cheese, getting the sauce right wasn't easy. Mike and his family would travel back to Detroit to do pizza reconnaissance. Mike would deconstruct pizzas, spread out the sauces on napkins and let them dry to see what kind of ingredients were in the sauce. Were they using coarse ground or fine ground sauce? What kind of peppers were they using? Was it granulated or was it all powdered? He wanted to make sure it was perfect. "We made so many bad samples," Mike laughs, "I would just put everything in it, way too much of it all."
The Road to Up and Running
Even after he'd nailed down the recipe, the road to opening Klausie's wasn't easy. Mike had just been laid off from a tech job, so he was unemployed and decided to just go for it. The Small Business Association refused him a loan, so he borrowed against his house and started charging things on his credit card. Mike said his wife told him, "You've got a credit card that doesn't have anything on it. You've got a home equity line. $19000. Go to town. Let's see if you can put your business together for nineteen-grand."
He found a 1977 Step Van in Tampa, Florida for $8500. The truck's engine blew on the way back from Tampa, which cost another $4500. "I didn't know anything," Mike says, "That's the thing about food truck owners: We're restaurateurs or we're just dreamers. We don't have any understanding about how trucks work." The truck Mike bought had previously been a pizza truck, but wasn't at all set up for Detroit pizza. "It took me five more months to get it right," he told me. Mike managed to get his Detroit pizza kitchen shoved into a very small space. Not to mention the three guys working inside.
Klausie's finally opened in August of 2010. "I had just enough to buy the cheese, the sauce, the crust, and pepperoni," Mike said. On his first outing, he planned to go to a soccer park. "It was supposed to be really busy at that soccer park," he explained. But the games were all rained out, which he didn't know. On his way, he had passed a park where kids were practicing football. Mike turned around and headed back. "Here's this truck pulling up, no lights, no nothing. Nobody walked up," Mike laughed. "The last guy and his son that were leaving walked up and I got 'em to come over and have a slice of pizza. I was so excited, it was gonna be my first slices of pizza. I was so excited, it was gonna be my first slices of pizza—two pepperonis and a water. And it took 25 minutes to make those two slices." After that, Mike realized he needed to take a different approach, both to his cooking method and his marketing.
For the first six months, it was just Mike and the truck, struggling to buy the next box of cheese. Fast forward two years and Mike is usually still at the window of his truck taking orders and calling people when their slices are ready. And when he's not in the truck, he's outside checking in with just about everyone who orders a slice. Now he's hired a staff to help him make pizza and manage the truck when he's not there. A brick and mortar restaurant is in the works. "Six months," says Mike. "I keep saying six months for the last two years, but I'm gonna keep saying it."
When Mike first started he was going to keep it traditional, sticking with cheese and pepperoni. And the volume of pies was so small he couldn't justify getting too far afield. But now Klausie's offers around 13 different slice options. "I want to push the envelope as much as I can because a food truck is a great experiment." On the day we talked, he was working on debuting a barbecue chicken slice. True to form, he was trying to make it perfect. "We don't have that thing that pops on it. Maybe we need coleslaw on it? We've gotta make a coleslaw."
Mike is extremely proud of his pizza. "When I first started, I would say 'voted third best'." His reasoning being that the inspiration for Klausie's pizza, Buddy's in Detroit, was, at that time, rated the third best pizza in the country. To Mike, it seemed only logical that his pizza would would take the spot. "I thought I did a better job."
Klausie's serves up their wildly popular, square-pan, Detroit-style pizza almost everyday at locations throughout the Triangle.
About the authors: Eric and Sarah Mine live in Durham, North Carolina. When not eating, cooking, or brewing, Eric works as a lawyer and Sarah works in food policy.