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PizzaPapalis debuts a satisfying Detroit-style square pizza with crispy crust

Celebrating more than 33 years in Greektown, the Chicago-style pizza joint introduced a thick-crust Detroit square pie in September that owner Joe Sheena says is a tribute to his mother

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

When it comes to Chicago-style pizza in Detroit, Joe Sheena's PizzaPapalis is the undisputed king. Now, the longstanding Greektown restaurant owner is evolving with the times and has added a different kind of famous deep-dish pie to his menu. 

Known for huge, heavy, sauce-topped pies with layers of cheese, meat and veggies, the Chicago deep-dish style has been serving the business well since Sheena opened PizzaPapalis in 1986 after an inspiring Windy City road trip to see the Lions play the Bears.  

The 313 pizza at PizzaPapalis has pepperoni, bacon and yellow peppers.

Pizza has been Sheena's whole world for three decades. He attends and competes at pizza conventions in Las Vegas frequently, picking up on trends and tips from industry leaders. When he saw Neapolitan-style pizza was in vogue about 10 years ago, he opened NeoPapalis Pizza in Ann Arbor. 

Now, it's clear the growing trend nationwide is Detroit-style pizza. Being that his pizza business is based in the the heart of that city, he decided to add it to the menu after 30-plus years of serving a style of pie that put the 312 on the pizza map. 

"You gotta change with the times," said Sheena, who runs the PizzaPapalis empire with his brother Mark Sheena. "We have to stay ahead of the curve." 

Sheena said in addition to challenging himself and offering more diversity on the menu, he also wanted to do something to honor his 87-year-old mother. He said both parents were very influential in him going into the food industry. 

"We call this pizza Nana's Detroit-style pizza," he said. "It was just time to do something, put a little something new into the system." 

PizzaPapalis' Detroit-style square pizza has a crunchy crust that is not greasy, with a generous amount of cheese and toppings oozing over the charred sides. Sauce is ladled on top above the cheese, keeping the dough light and crisp. Unlike a thick serving of their hefty Chicago-style, PizzaPapalis' Detroit square won't stop you in your tracks after one slice. 

It's a fantastic edition to the Detroit-style pizza options that are growing in the area. 

PizzaPapalis owner Joe Sheena debuted his new Detroit-style square pizza in September.

Sheena says rather than consult others on Motown's popular pizza style — "we don't just buy Tony Gemignani 'Pizza Bible' and say 'OK, how does he do Detroit-style pizza?'' Sheena quips — he spent eight months researching it himself. 

He not only had to test what tasted and looked the best, but what also worked with his ovens. Buying new or additional ovens for a whole new style of pizza was not a feasible option. 

"It's like anything else that I do, I spent a lot of time figuring out recipes," said Sheena, who actually has attended Gemignani's pizza school in San Francisco. "I really scrutinize everything." 

The cheese is a PizzaPapalis brand mozzarella, which is part skim and part whole milk, along with Wisconsin brick cheese and white cheddar. The red sauce is a mix of what he uses on his thin crust pizzas and the Chicago-style deep dishes. 

"I want it to be nice and airy," he said of the dough, which uses a blend of flours. "I want it have a lot of cell structure to it and that's what I was shooting for." 

He seasons his pans with olive oil and a some butter. 

"You gotta season those pans," he said. "You talk to a Buddy's guy, a Loui's guy, a Cloverleaf guy, and they're all going to say something a little different (about how they season their pans)." 

Sheena, who says he is "juiced" to come into work every day even after three decades, says the response has been positive not just from customers but also his servers and cooks.

He says business has increased each month since he began serving the Detroit-style square pizza in September. This helps make up for other factors that have negatively affected the restaurant recently, like the dip in attendance for Detroit sports teams and the increase of other food businesses opening. 

Joe Sheena, left, and his brother Mark Sheena stand in the original PizzaPapalis in Greektown.

The menu, which is the same at all seven PizzaPapalis locations in Metro Detroit and Toledo, offers Nana's Detroit-style pizza in one size, with eight square pieces. The 313 is the house favorite, with Margherita brand pepperoni, apple wood bacon and yellow pepper rings. The Greektown pie has spinach, yellow pepper rings, black olives, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese. They're ready hot out the oven in about 20-25 minutes; the Chicago-style takes 45 minutes. 

All Detroit-style pizzas are priced at $19.86 to commemorate the year Sheena opened PizzaPapalis in Greektown. Back in the mid-1980s, it was rare for a business owner who was not of Greek descent to open a business on this strip in Downtown Detroit. 

While the business is trying new things by adding an completely new style of pizza, Sheena said much has stayed the same since he opened this original location. 

"We really haven't changed anything in the last 35 years," he said. "I'm still getting the same tomatoes from Italy. I'm still using the same flour that we've had. We haven't cut any corners, we haven't changed a darn thing. Some of my pans are 30 years old."

PizzaPapalis' Greektown location, 553 Monroe in Detroit, is open 11 a.m.-midnight Sun.-Thurs. and 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri.-Sat. Call (313) 961-8020 or visit pizzapapalis.com

Greektown, Troy, Taylor and Toledo have sit-down PizzaPapalis restaurants. Carryout locations are in Detroit's Rivertown, Bloomfield Hills and Southfield. 

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens

The original PizzaPapalis opened in Greektown in 1986.