A genealogy of a pizza

Gus Guerra at Cloverleaf.

I love learning about the history of food. Just as genealogy does, learning about the evolution of food and food culture feeds my desire to fully understand how the people who came before us lived on a day-to-day basis. Recently, I did a deep dive into one particular food after my boyfriend and I got take-out pizza from Avenue Kitchen + Bar in Somerville, Massachusetts. We ordered one of their “Detroit-style” pizzas, which neither of us had ever heard of. We were absolutely blown away by how insanely delicious it was. This, of course, necessitated a whole deep dive into figuring out what exactly a Detroit-style pizza is. The descriptions we found online aligned with our own dining experience: thick-crusted, chewy, rectangular pizza, topped with cheese and pepperoni, drizzled with sauce, featuring crispy, crunchy edges. When I read that Detroit-style pizza could be traced back to one man, I was thoroughly intrigued, and immediately felt the need to set down my dinner plate and learn more.

The man we can thank for Detroit-style pizza is Gus Guerra. According to the State of Michigan’s tourism website, Gus, a bar and restaurant owner in Detroit in the 1940s, wanted to add something to his menu and “enlisted the help of his wife, Anna, who borrowed a dough recipe from her Sicilian mother. The Sicilian dough, topped with cheese and tomato sauce, would become the model for pizza in Detroit… The characteristics of the pizza – the soft and airy square crust, the crunchy exterior, the caramelized cheese that edges the pizza – are all due to the deep pans in which the pizzas are baked… Legend has it that Gus got his initial batch of pans from a friend who worked in a factory that used the pans for spare parts.”[1]

Agostino “Gus” Guerra was born on 9 October 1908 in Seravalle, the Republic of San Marino—a tiny European nation surrounded on all sides by Italy. On 8 March 1929, he sailed aboard the ship Augustus from Genoa and arrived 11 days later in New York. He was going to live with his cousin, Giuseppe Guerra, in Detroit. He was a laborer, and had either $25 or $70 in his possession (the passenger list shows 70 handwritten over the typed 25). Gus wasted no time declaring his intention to become an American citizen. One month later, on 18 April 1929, he completed a Declaration of Intention for naturalization.[2] He was naturalized in 1942.[3]

Gus did not start out in the industry where he ultimately succeeded.

Gus did not start out in the industry where he ultimately succeeded. After arriving in Detroit, he lived with his cousins on LeMay Street in Detroit for years, and worked a series of trade positions, including as a tile-setter for a contractor.[4] In October of 1940, shortly after his thirty-second birthday, he married Anna Passalacqua.[5] Four years later, he opened a bar called Buddy’s.[6]

After two years of struggling to operate Buddy’s as a bar, he expanded and began to serve food, too.[7] This is when, rumor has it, he enlisted the help of his mother-in-law, Sicilian-born Celia (Genco) Passalacqua.

Celia, or Crocifissa, as she was born, came from Marsala, in the westernmost part of Sicily—a town known not for its pizza, but for its wine. She emigrated to the United States in 1911, bringing with her her three young children. Her husband, Gioacchino (Jack), was already living in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Detroit, where daughter Anna was born.[8]

Gus, Anna, and Celia’s dough recipe made their mark on Detroit’s restaurant scene. Once pizza was added to the menu at Buddy’s bar, business improved. In 1953, Gus sold Buddy’s and opened a new restaurant, Cloverleaf, in East Detroit, which he eventually passed to his children. Buddy’s continued to serve the pizza Gus and his family had developed.[9]

Cloverleaf is still around, serving up the same family recipe.[10] So is Buddy’s, the restaurant Gus sold in 1953, now a chain with sixteen locations throughout Michigan.[11] Though popular in Detroit since the beginning, this style of pizza was slow to move beyond its place of conception. Food writers note that it has only been in the past decade that Detroit-style pizza has made an appearance in the national food scene.[12] I, for one, am certainly glad that Detroit-style pizza has somehow made its way to the Boston area.

For more information

Buddy’s Rendezvous Pizzeria & Bar in Detroit, https://www.buddyspizza.com/about-buddys

Cloverleaf Restaurant in East Detroit, https://cloverleaf-pizza.com/about-cloverleaf-pizza/

Notes

[1] “A History of Detroit-Style Pizza and Where to Find It,” https://www.michigan.org/article/trip-idea/history-of-detroit-style-pizza-where-to-find-it, accessed 23 October 2020.

[2] Year: 1929; Arrival: New York, New York, USA; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Line: 1; Page Number: 55; and National Archives at Chicago; Chicago, Illinois; ARC Title: Declarations of Intention, 1856 – 1989; NAI Number: 1137682; Record Group Title: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685-2009; Record Group Number: RG 21.

[3] U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes, 1794-1995 [database on-line], Ancestry.com.

[4] Year: 1940; Census Place: Detroit, Wayne, Michigan; Roll: m-t0627-01882; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 84-1430; Darryl Fears, “August Guerra, 80, gave start to pizza that’s now Buddy’s,” Detroit Free Press, 6 April 1989, 42.

[5] Guerra-Passalacqua Marriage, License No. 556420, Wayne County Michigan Marriage License, 25 October 1940.

[6] Fears, “August Guerra,” 42.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Series Title: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, 1891-1943; NAI Number: 4319742; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: 85; Series Number: T843; NARA Roll Number: 169; Year: 1920; Census Place: Detroit Ward 11, Wayne, Michigan; Roll: T625_810; Page: 21A; Enumeration District: 331; Year: 1930; Census Place: Detroit, Wayne, Michigan; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: 0238; FHL microfilm: 2340775.

[9] Fears, “August Guerra,” 42.

[10] “Perfection By The Slice: Serving Perfect Pizza Since 1946,” Cloverleaf Pizza, https://cloverleaf-pizza.com/about-cloverleaf-pizza/, accessed 23 October 2020.

[11] “The Buddy’s Story,” Buddy’s Pizza, https://www.buddyspizza.com/about-buddys, accessed 23 October 2020; and “Locations,” Buddy’s Pizza, https://www.buddyspizza.com/locations, accessed 23 October 2020.

[12] Brenna Houck, “Detroit-Style Pizza Is Having a Moment. But Are Its Originators Getting Left Behind?” 9 April 2019, https://www.eater.com/2019/4/9/18300994/square-pizza-detroit-style-trend-buddys-emmy-squared-expansion, accessed 23 October 2020.

Hallie Borstel

About Hallie Borstel

Hallie Borstel has a BA in history with minors in art history and German language from American University, as well as an MA in historic preservation from Tulane University. She joined NEHGS after several years working in architectural restoration and preservation in New Orleans. She has also worked at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, the West Virginia Railroad Museum, and Bender Library at American University. Her research interests include Germany, New York City, immigration history, and 19th-century America.

16 thoughts on “A genealogy of a pizza

  1. As a child in central CT — born 1934 — I enjoyed it when my Dad would bring home a treat for the family, “ABEETS,” purchased at a local Restaurant. Now I’ve learned that this was the pronunciation of “APIZZA” as brought to the area by Sicilian immigrants, now sometimes termed “New Haven Style Pizza.” Subsequently, I went to college in the Chicago area and enjoyed that very different “style” of pizza. Ordered it once on a trip to Italy, but don’t recall what “style” was served. Now, living in the Philadelphia suburbs, I sometimes get confused, but still enjoy what comes under the name “pizza.”

    1. Thanks for your comment, Robert! It’s so interesting to hear about people’s different regional pizza experiences.

  2. Growing up on Long Island, we had all kinds of pizza, and referred to the pizza described above, simply as Sicilian. Living in Fairfield County now, my experience with New Haven pizza (here’s to you, Pepe’s) is quite different, the crust being thin and crisp. No matter, in my opinion they are all delicious!

    1. I’m from NJ, and the Sicilian-style pizza I’ve had before wasn’t quite the same as this Detroit-style. But you’re right, they are all delicious!

  3. Detroit and its suburbs was always “divided” by an imaginary line between the East Side with Cloverleaf Pizza on Gratiot Avenue and the West Side with Buddy’s Pizza somewhere in the wilds west of Van Dyke. Many an argument has been had over where that imaginary line dividing the east and west sides falls. The question of whether you went to Cloverleaf Pizza or Buddy’s might help figure that out!
    The east side of Detroit was home to a vast numbers of Italian immigrants drawn to Michigan by manufacturing jobs; these types of jobs existing long before Henry Ford made Detroit his base of operations. This population spread north out of Detroit’s eastside and into border towns including East Detroit where many a home can still be found with a Summer kitchen in the basement, a hallmark of an Italian mother. St. Veronica’s Catholic Church, built with the efforts and donated funds of many devote Italian families, was a center of activity.
    There were a few other ethic immigrant groups mixed in like my own Irish great grandparents who built a house in 1927 north of 8 Mile Road steps away from the trolley line Grandpa Hugh McKenna drove on Gratiot. My own Croatian grandmother lived on Jacob Street from the 1950s until her death in 1991. I had never even heard of Buddy’s Pizza until I was in my 20s and married to one of those foreign West-siders. Turns out his Italian grandparents lived kitty corner to my grandmother’s backyard and were “those neighbors” whose entire backyard was a vegetable garden where they raised bunnies to eat for dinner.
    Needless to say, my family saw plenty of Cloverleaf Pizza. After my mother’s funeral mass from St Veronica’s, where she had attended grade school and my parents had married 59+ years earlier, we headed for lunch at Cloverleaf Pizza per her instructions.
    BTW: You won’t find East Detroit on a current map–the city changed it’s name to Eastpoint in 1992.

  4. Hallie, I am Gus’ granddaughter and just want to say thank you for being curious and looking into this! I love when I see his story being shared and know my family is very appreciative of those who tell the pizza story! If you ever come to Detroit we hope you stop in for Detroit’s original square pizza at Cloverleaf!

    1. Liana, thank you for stopping by to read my post! I’d loved learning about your family story, even though I’ve yet to have the original Detroit-style pizza. Hopefully, someday, I’ll get a chance to try it!

  5. Giuseppe Guerra, was my father’s brother, so that would make him my Uncle. I was born in Detroit but never met him or his family. We then moved to California where my father died. Its nice to read a little history about my family. Thank you for posting that.

  6. Hi Hallie! I’m Gus’ daughter, Marie Guerra Easterby, and I loved your article! I learned some things about Dad and where he came into the US and where he first lived. I knew he came to the US the year of the Great Depression with very little money, the name of relatives he was going to stay with and the promise of a job. He did work in the quarry tile business before he bought Buddy’s in Detroit with my Mom’s 2 uncles. You reminded me that Mom always said she paid the $2 for the marriage license! We would giggle when she would get mad at him once in awhile and tell him she would give him the $2 back! Lol! Like my daughter Liana mentioned in an earlier comment, when in Eastpointe Michigan come on by so we can meet you and thank you personally. My brother Jack and myself continue with the Cloverleaf Bar & Restaurant carrying on the tradition of Dad’s Detroit Style pizza. It would be our pleasure to serve you Warm regards from Michigan. Marie

    1. Marie, thank you so much for your comment! Your family’s story was so interesting to learn about. I love the joke about the $2! I will definitely come by if I am ever in the area!

  7. I don’t know if this is allowed, but here goes. Marie Guerra, I wanted to share with you that Joe Guerra was my Uncle. Joe was my father’s older brother. There were 3 boys, Joe, Lino and Marino (my father). All born in the Republic of San Marino. My name is Carol Guerra Grialou.

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