The sign outside the Green Lantern Lounge on the corner of 12 Mile and John R in Madison Heights proclaims "The Best Pizza in Town." That is a contentious boast in an area with so many plausible contenders for those laurels.
The venerable Green Lantern has indeed won best-pizza awards from Channel 4 and the Free Press. And, to be sure, it has attracted legions of fans who continue to return year after year and generation after generation to the homey and homely bar with walls crammed full of sports ephemera and family photos.
Among the photos are several of Thomas and Irene Vettraino who bought an old farmhouse-bar and its green lantern in 1955. Marlene Spreitzer, their daughter and the eatery's current owner, employs the same pizza recipe and ingredients introduced by her parents more than a half-century ago.
Although there is a non-smoking section, prepare to absorb second-hand smoke on your clothing in this noisy and intimate room that packs in 112 when full which is quite often, especially on weekends. Just about everyone comes for the pizza but there are other items on the limited menu.
For example, for a first course, one clear winner is Lantern bread ($5.50), pizza crust with a cheese-garlic topping that looks so much like white pizza that when you later order a real pizza, you will have a pizza-pizza experience. Less redundant are buffalo wings ($4.95) and chicken strips ($5.50). The tender wings are pleasantly hot if not crispy, and the chicken strips are a bit too crisp and thus slightly dry. How to turn out fowl that is crisp on the outside and tender on the inside is a problem that befuddles the most accomplished chefs. In any event, the Green Lantern redeems both chicken appetizers with their dipping media.
The Greek salad is the best bet among the greenery with the small ($5.45) easily serving three or even four. Nothing fancy here, as an overwhelming amount of iceberg lettuce surrounds an adequate supply of beets and a somewhat skimpier sprinkling of feta cheese.
Nothing fancy either with the plain plastic plates and paper napkins or with the informal, lively servers such as Cori.
Those few Detroiters with an aversion to pizza can opt for several sandwiches, highlighted by an impressive baked double-meat-and-cheese sub ($4.40 for 6 inches). Aside from the usual fillings, this hearty hero contains a dollop of the Green Lantern's "world-famous slaw." World-famous is an exaggeration but the cole slaw is certainly competitive in its class.
Or one could go for a chili boat ($5.75) with the chili and cheese baked in a pizza dough.
But all of this is prologue to the raison d'être for the Green Lantern the pizza. As in most older pizza palaces, the kitchen first made thin-crusted round pies and only added the deep-dish variety around seven years ago. Both come in four sizes from 10 inches ($5.35-$5.95) to 16 inches ($10.50-$11.95) with the 10-inch mini suitable for two. The price structure here and throughout the menu is quite reasonable, another explanation for the Green Lantern's popularity.
Both pies are available with traditional toppings such as top-of-the-line pepperoni, mushrooms, sausage and ground beef, as well as untraditional pineapples and banana pepper rings.
You can create your own pie with toppings that add from $.70 to $1.20 to the cost depending on its size or you can choose from among several pre-constructed specialties. Those include Hawaiian with ham and pineapple and a BLT with all the ingredients of that classic including mayonnaise!
So are they the "Best Pizzas in Town" It is difficult to evaluate that claim since pizza rating is unusually subjective. Everyone is a pizza expert and everyone knows what constitutes superior pizza for them. The variables are virtually limitless. Among the most important are: deep dish or thin; dominating tomatoes or dominating cheese; and doughy or crunchy crusts.
Suffice to say that Green Lantern's pizzas are good. The deep dish's crust is satisfactorily burnt a bit; the thin pie may be a bit doughy for some tastes. Both tilt slightly toward cheese over tomato. The toppings are generously layered on. And both pizza varieties are adequately but not overly greasy. That is, when, eschewing cutlery, you pick up a slice, most of the ingredients maintain their designated positions.
The wine service, which used to center around half carafes of house pours ($9), has been expanded of late to include 13 serviceable bottles from $19 to $25.
The Green Lantern's pizzas can certainly hold their own against chain competitors, and there is something to be said for patronizing a small family-owned business, which despite the opening of a takeout outlet in Royal Oak, is still essentially a one-restaurant operation. Furthermore, the several generations of Green Lantern aficionados who throng the place speak to its value and tradition.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].