April 22, 2010 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham Restaurant Review: Loui's Pizza -- 3 stars

Pizza pleaser: Loui's doesn't change much, and that's a very good thing

Loui's pizza, robust and crisp, is no thin-crusted pretender. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

'I've got dough rising," said Louie Tourtois III, politely excusing himself from a caller to Loui's Pizza a few days ago.

Indeed, dough has been rising at the Hazel Park pizzeria since 1977, when the patriarch of the family established the restaurant that doesn't seem to have changed much in 33 years.

It is completely unpretentious, from the stacks of plastic plates and paper napkins ready to hold pizza and antipasto salad on the closely packed tables, to the T-shirted wait staff and the convivially noisy atmosphere. Four generations of the family have been involved over the years in what has become an almost legendary spot, the low-slung building on Dequindre Road between Nine Mile and 10 Mile that is the anchor of the neighborhood.

Louis Tourtois Sr., Louis Tourtois Jr. and Louie Tourtois III are carrying on the tradition of serving sturdy, square pizzas and antipasto salads in big glass bowls to a melting pot crowd that simply loves the down-to-earth appeal of the place.

Pizza at Loui's bears little resemblance to the dainty, thin-crusted pretenders that have become popular in trendy restaurants over the past few years. These robust square pizzas come on a crisp, bread-like crust that is usually faintly charred around the edges, and they are brought to the tables by some of the most cheerful servers around, mostly women, who seem unfazed on even the busiest of nights.

It seems they spend much of their time pushing tables together and then pulling them apart as the crowd shifts. "Apart" doesn't mean you'll find a cozy table for two. The mystique of Loui's includes the we're-all-in-this-together feeling generated by the tight seating.

"What are we drinking?" will be the first thing the waitress asks as she comes to the table. Beer and wine are the most frequent choices, and if it happens to be red wine, the next question is "Chilled or room temperature?" Wine prices are gentle, at $5 per glass, $9.50 for a half-liter and $15.50 for a liter. Lambrusco, a variety you might have thought had faded into antiquity, is still available here, and so are fat, straw-wrapped bottles of Chianti.

Patrons leave the empty bottles to add to the autographed collection displayed overhead in the main dining room. That's always been part of the décor, attesting to the thousands of previous guests.

One of the hallmarks of a Loui's pizza, in addition to the memorably crunchy crust, is the strategic blend of cheese and tomato sauce that tops it. Neither one predominates. Just the right balance of the two is achieved, and while the pizzas certainly aren't thin, they are also not the deep-dish Chicago variety. These are quintessentially Detroit pizzas.

The most frequently ordered accompaniment is antipasto salad, a big bowl of lettuce dotted with tiny cubes of ham, salami and tomato, to be self-served at the table.

The vinaigrette dressing is from a recipe Tourtois Sr. devised when he opened the place. He wanted it to be somewhat different from the simple oil, vinegar and salt and pepper version used at the two pizzerias he'd been involved with previously -- Buddy's and Shields -- so he added a few touches of his own. It took him three days to come up with the right taste, says Louis Jr.

It's very good, subtly seasoned and it's tossed with the salad ingredients before the bowl comes to the table. I suppose you could order dressing on the side, but please don't.

While pizza is not the only thing on the menu at Loui's, for many patrons it might as well be. For the minority, there are some very basic pasta dishes, such as spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and meat- or cheese-filled ravioli, and sturdy sandwiches including steak hoagies and Italian sausage.

The newest addition to the scene is a big TV screen high on the wall in the main dining room. It was added a few weeks ago and the reaction has been positive, says Louis Jr.

No wonder. In this town, we love our sports just as much as we love our pizza.

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