By the slice

It's a shame that "Detroit-style" pizza, the square, deep-dish variety, allegedly first imported to the United States from Italy just after World War II, is not recognized by name anywhere — even in Detroit. Other distinctive pies have come to be associated with New York, Chicago, New Haven, and now, with Pizzeria Mozza, even Los Angeles. In this Rodney Dangerfield of cities, our pies get no respect beyond our borders, which is strange given the national renown of locally based Domino's and Little Caesars.

Doing a mostly carryout business, My Cousin's New York Pizzeria opened in a strip mall in Bloomfield Hills at Woodward and Square Lake in August, trading on the mystique of New York pizza.

Virtually every pizza style in the United States, except perhaps exotica like Hawaiian, originated in Italy. The century-old New York Neapolitan variant, classically constructed at Lombardi's, John's and the long defunct Gold Star, is round, generally thin (although thick-crusted at the slightly charred edges), moderately greasy and eaten folded lengthwise. New Yorkers contend that their pizza, especially the crust, can only be made in their city because of the unique qualities of the water.

Ronnie Gonzalez, one of the owners of My Cousin's, has worked in pizzerias run by his family in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. He liked living in Detroit but missed his native pie as well as the ability to buy one slice at a time. One of the first things he and co-owners David Kouza and Scotty Jonna (of the celebrated wine-purveying family) made sure to do when they opened their pizzeria was to offer a slice of cheese or pepperoni for $2.25, available at all times within a few minutes. (Pizzeria Venti, a self-proclaimed "sliceria" on Wayne State's campus, does offer slices of 20 different pizzas)

But is it New York pizza? Although Gonzalez admits that they use Detroit water to make the all-important crust, it does approximate Gotham's best. Its slices, wider than the Detroit norm for round pizzas, are eminently foldable and the crust is thin and delicate until you arrive at the crunchy edge, which is always eaten last. Moreover, the seamlessly blended tomato and cheese are more lightly applied than in comparable Detroit varieties. However, My Cousin's pizza is not quite as oily as a typical New York production because Gonzalez fears that this might disturb locals used to drier pies.

A plain-cheese 14-incher goes for $6.99, an 18-incher for $11.99. A "specialty" pizza, such as the subtly seasoned Margarita (with tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, garlic and oregano), costs $12.99 for a small pie that can easily satisfy two people. Among the 14 other specialties are Spinach Alfredo, White Spinach (without tomato sauce), Chicken Broccoli, the artery-clogging Super Meaty (laden with pepperoni, sausage, ham, meatball and bacon), and a stuffed pizza crammed full of even more ingredients than the Super Meaty. You can customize a pizza with 22 toppings, some as outré as broccoli or artichoke hearts.

Like all pizza joints, Ronnie and his partners offer attractive discount combos such as two specialty pizzas for $19.99 instead of $25.98.

If you care to go beyond pizza, My Cousin's offers pasta, sandwiches, salads and even chicken dishes. For starters and a bit of greenery ($6.95), the Greek salad includes sufficient beets and feta, along with grape tomatoes and iceberg and romaine lettuce, while the antipasto is loaded with bits of meat, cheese and, in a nice touch, hard-boiled-egg slices. All the salads come with a packet of generic bottled dressing.

Most everything else on the menu is housemade, including the tender and very lemony chicken piccata ($12.95) that comes with a mound of spaghetti bathed in pleasantly sweet marinara sauce and a bland garlic bread stick. My Cousin's also turns out chicken Marsala, franchaise and parmigiana as well as an admirable eggplant parmigiana, with the savory melted cheese contributing significantly to its success.

In addition, spaghetti is available as an entrée, served with meatballs or sausage or both, along with baked lasagna and ziti. Among the four subs available, the sausage and peppers ($5.95) is earthy with a bit of a zing, but its overly soft roll becomes soggy as the gooey filling rapidly leaches into its bindings. The same can be said for the chicken and meatball parmigiana subs.

Similarly, the relatively soft pizza rolls ($4.99) stuffed with pepperoni, spinach or sausage, could be crisper. And the spinach roll, in particular, is underseasoned. Of course, that is a matter of personal taste, and, more importantly, if you own a restaurant and hope to appeal to the widest possible clientele, you'd better handle spices with care. The need to attract that clientele is why a New York-style pizzeria also features Buffalo wings and Philly cheese steak.

But most of those drawn to My Cousin's New York Pizzeria come for its authentic regional pie, which is different enough from local varieties to merit attention from Detroit's legion of pizza fanatics — as well as displaced New Yorkers.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].

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