In the battle for regional American pizza dominance, Detroit seldom gets mentioned with much frequency or fervency. Even in Los Angeles, conversations mostly center on New York versus Chicago – if there's much of a fight. We've been more consumed with Neapolitan renditions.
Chefs Alvin Cailan and Isa Fabro don't have much at stake on either side. Both native Angelenos, the duo created one of L.A.'s best Detroit-inspired pies at Cailan's Chinatown restaurant incubator, Unit 120. In doing so, they may have opened the floodgates for the type of heated exchanges that can bring out the inner trolls in most of us. Not that there's much to gripe about, really. The two will be the first to say that Detroit's tradition is more of a reference than a recipe.
“We take certain nuances, like the cheese crust,” Cailan says. Adds Fabro, “It's square and thicker. We're selling it as one big pizza.” They acknowledge that they've veered away from other traditional Detroit elements, such as using sauce ladled over cheese or baking the pie in an industrial-parts tray.
Perhaps the strongest tie to the Motor City is the crispier crust. Mastered by Fabro after a week's worth of testing, the dough renders a crust similar to a foccacia. Having encountered one too many burnt or underbaked pies, the chefs pursued one that would exemplify the Maillard reaction, a chemical process responsible for the golden-brown crust.
They chose Detroit in a roundabout, patchwork way. A few months ago, Cailan mentioned to Fabro the prospect of making pizza at Unit 120. She suggested a square version, thinking of the Sicilian slices she grew up eating at Perry's Pizza, now gone, in Lakewood. He had already gone on a weeklong reading spree, exploring the possibilities of the equipment at the incubator. The lack of a wood-fired oven meant no Neapolitan pies or, as it turned out, Sicilian either.
“Based on what I've tasted and researched, Sicilian pizza is made with typical pizza dough. If you love New York pizza crust, then you'll love Sicilian pizza,” Cailan explains. “But we wanted to create crispy, chewy, airy, and that's what Detroit is. Like a bread dough, [as opposed to] to a pizza dough.”
Cailan didn't hesitate to trust Fabro with the dough development — she gained her pastry experience from some of the top restaurants in L.A. (Orsa & Winston, Hatfield's, Water Grill). Cailan, meanwhile, focused on creating the sauce. Through several rounds of testing, the two settled on a San Marzano tomato sauce, quick-cooked then steeped with thin garlic slices and locally grown oregano and Thai basil.
They placed just as much emphasis on the rest of the ingredients: Parmigiano-Reggiano, low-moisture mozzarella, fennel pollen, Jacobsen salt, house-made sausage and pickled peppers. “And really good olive oil to top off the pizza when it comes out of the oven,” Cailan says.
By any name or style, their pizza is delicious. Each slice holds up the weight of its toppings when pulled apart from the pie. There's the textural elasticity where crunch gives into chew that you want but rarely get from a deeper-dish pizza. No one main component — neither sauce, cheese nor crust — outshines the other.
They've been slinging Detroit pies on Mondays and plan to offer their six-slice pies for $12 for the indefinite future. There are three available options: cheese, pepperoni or a special, such as sausage or eggplant Parmesan. Check out Unit 120's website or Instagram for announcements.
727 N. Broadway, #120, Los Angeles; (213) 537-0053, unit120.com.