Pie-Sci’s got the formula for inventive pizza

Detroit's taste in pizza has deep roots in the heartiness of a square deep dish. The formula of crunchy crust, piled on first with toppings, then cheese, then sauce, and the use of a steel pan is a source of comfort for our hearty Upper Midwest appetites. At the same time, it's a sign of our historic reluctance to change. Why mess with different flavor combinations, doughs, or sauces when you've got such a great thing going?

It's a hypothesis that Jeremy Damaske, the whiz behind Pie-Sci, dared to challenge when he started inventing his own pizza combinations every Sunday in the kitchen at Woodbridge Pub about six years ago. His pies came topped with unique, seasonal ingredients like romaine lettuce, steak, and fresh fruit — toppings that one might not otherwise associate with pizza. He came up with catchy, pun-filled titles — often laced with pop culture references — for the memorable names of his creations.

At the time Pie-Sci got started, no one was really doing that in Detroit, Damaske tells us. That sort of experimentation might have been more expected in New York, where pizzerias would turn the classic slice on its head to the delight of foodies.

Since Damaske started, though, Detroiters have increasingly begun to embrace this departure from tradition, and a number of newer pizza joints have come up with similar ideas.

That momentum, plus Damaske having outgrown the confines of a borrowed kitchen, spelled out expansion for Pie-Sci. In July, he opened his own brick-and-mortar pizzeria, a bright red storefront marked with the spot's signature beaker logo displayed in neon lighting, next door to the pub where he got his start. The spot is a classic pizza joint where hungry Wayne State students can either hang out in a casual, yet clean space after class, or pick up pies to-go and nosh while cramming for midterms in their dorm rooms.

The Pie-Sci team goes to work each week to design ever more creative specials, coming up with a combo of toppings, and then finding the catchiest title. On a recent visit, the pizza of the week on the shop's "Science Lab" board was the "Take Another Little Peach of My Heart." The white pizza — topped with sliced peaches, goat cheese, Italian sausage, and mozzarella — plays off the 1967 track "Piece of My Heart," famously covered by Janis Joplin. As for flavor, the peaches work in much the same fashion as pineapple on a Hawaiian pizza.

The weekly specials complement the spot's regular standbys, divided by increasing levels of complexity. For example, you'll find a classic Margherita on the "Basics" elementary-level section. More daring diners can graduate onto the "Complex" menu for interesting combos like the "Age of Asparagus" (a white pizza with garlic oil, shaved/marinated asparagus, mozzarella, with shaved Parmesan, a balsamic glaze drizzle, and a lemon wedge). The most advanced level in the pie lab is "Graduate," with seasonal selections such as the ICP (Insane Cauliflower Pizza), a pie with red sauce, oven roasted cauliflower, feta, red onion, jalapeno, and more balsamic drizzle.

In keeping with the experimental nature of the offerings, the menu will change with the seasons. During the warmer months, guests came to expect lighter ingredients like strawberries, leafy veggies, and white sauce. In the next few weeks, the next menu will take advantage of the fall harvest with toppings like squash, root veggies, and beets. During the winter, don't be surprised to see hearty comfort foods in pizza form (like mac 'n' cheese or meat and potatoes).

We tried several offerings. The ICP was a nice balance of spicy and sweet, and the cauliflower added a semi-crunchy texture. A lighter Skrimp City was a medley of white sauce, enough vodka/Tabasco-marinated shrimps to make it onto each slice, white onion, mozzarella, balsamic drizzle, and a lime wedge (which we suggest squeezing on top of the pie). Our dining partner loved the Pulled Pjork, another white pizza with garlic oil, pulled pork, pickled onion, mozzarella, loads of red cabbage coleslaw, and a Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ sauce drizzle. We found the slaw a bit overpowering, but appreciate the creativity. Our favorite was the Fennel Countdown, with red sauce, garlic oil, Italian sausage, oven roasted fennel, caramelized onions, sautéed bell peppers, and mozzarella.

You may have noticed that many of the selections come with a drizzle of some sort, as well as garlic sauce. While such additions give the impression that the pizza will come out soggy or greasy, that was not the case in our experience. The crust is plenty sturdy enough to support the extra touches. Customers can choose from a chewy round or a crispier Detroit square (Damaske recommends getting the square with the red pizzas). A build-your-own option is available for those who swear by their own favorites. And to drink, the restaurant offers a handful of locally made Detroit City Sodas.

Damaske's love for pizza started at 15 when he worked at Carlo's Pizza in Macomb County. It was just a small mom-and-pop place, but he was drawn to its no-muss appeal. Years later, while working as a bartender and touring with his band Summer Pledge, he lived down the street from Woodbridge Pub. That's when he decided to have a go at building his own concept. He partnered with AJ Manoulian, who helped him develop a business plan, among other things. The weekly pizzeria became a staple at the bar, but after so many years of sharing a kitchen, he started discussing build-out of his own space with Jim Geary, the pub owner, who also owned the property next door.

The partners have since gone their separate ways, but the pizzeria has finally found a home of its own. We applaud Damaske for making his pizza-making dream a tasty reality for us all.

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