Monday, April 21, 2008

The Best Pizza in Detroit...and the WORLD???

Originally published on D-Tales here.

Recently the folks at Gracie See Pizzeria (located at Greenfield and Warren in Detroit's Warrendale community) competed in the International Pizza Challenge at the 24th Annual International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. They won second place in the "Best Traditional Pizza" category, just missing the title of "2008 World's Best Traditional Pizza." First and third places went to some guys from Italy, go fig.

Consider my curiousity piqued. I decided to check out this Gracie See's to see what all the fuss is about.

Gracie See's has this whole "I do business with the family" thing going on--"the family" referring to, you know, the family. As in, THE FAMILY. Their specialty is a huge platter o' pasta known as "The Godfather," and comes with the works of pasta dishes--your choice of noodles (spaghetti, rigatoni, etc.) covered in mushrooms, peppers, two different kinds of sausage, and more. With an order of "The Godfather," you also get a free order of their "Dago Fingers"--pizza dough topped with cheese and garlic butter. Gracie's See's has a full menu of traditional Italian-American dishes, with classics like Veal Parmesan, but this isn't what they placed second internationally for, and so I focused on what was most important: the pizza.

First of all, the place is a bit off-putting. When you first walk in, you enter a hallway in which you are staring directly into the kitchen. To your left is a small, crowded dining room/bar area (with no clear area to wait to be seated, and no clear direction to seat yourself); to your right, another small dining area, also with no clear seating direction. I kind of stood there looking lost until I finally asked some dude in the kitchen, which was the only thing in my immediate vicinity standing as I was right inside the entryway, where exactly I should pay for my carry-out order. It must have been pretty obvious that I was new there, because it felt like everyone was staring at me for my supreme ignorance. Then again, maybe I was just feeling a little self-conscious in a place that had 2-litres of pop and gallons of booze just kind of piled up by the windows, like a party store in the middle of an inventory check.

The d├ęcor had the look of an extremely run-down once-popular restaurant that had suffered greatly from the passage of time. The place has been open since 1969, and it looks like it hasn't had a paint job or new carpet since then. All the upholstery was brown, brown, brown...unfortunately, this went beyond shabby chic to just plain shabby.

But again--they did not win an award for their interior design, but for their pizza, and it was the pizza I was there to try. I decided to play it safe with a standard pizza classic--medium round with cheese and pepperoni. I find that this classic preparation is the best way to determine the quality of the pizza itself--clean and simple, letting the pizza speak for itself.

I liked it. I wasn't bowled-over impressed by it, but I liked it. I certainly didn't think to myself, "WOW! This is some of the best pizza in the whole entire WORLD!", but I liked it. Super-thin crust, very flavorful and spicy (and greasy) pepperoni, a good balance of mozzarella cheese, well-made sauce that complimented the other flavors instead of overpowering them...overall, mighty tasty. The crust was the best part--many places fail to meet the appropriate ratio of greasiness to doughiness to crustiness. A good crust should have some flavor; it should be crunchy on the outside but soft and doughy on the inside; it should serve to soak up the grease of the pizza without itself being greasy. Too greasy, and you get Pizza Hut-style soaking through the cardboard box. Too dry and it's Little Caesar's-style cardboard. Gracie See's got it just right, Papa Bear, but the rest was just...just good. Not great. Just good.

Personally, some of my favorite pizzas have ranged from super-thick doughy crust (a place called Vinnie's up at 17 Mile Rd. and Hayes, now a Rosie O'Grady's, had what was probably my favorite pizza ever--my grandparents used to take me there all the time when I was just a young pup, and I always got their deep dish pizza which was about four inches of fluffy doughy goodness--I still have yet to find a proper replacement for this place) to super-thin grease bomb (Tomatoes Apizza in Farmington Hills spanks all other thin-crust competitors, hands-down--and I've been to New York, and I've been to Italy, and I've had thin-crust pizza in both places--and Tomatoes still spanks them). I also enjoy a good cheesy, crunchy square deep dish (mmmmm...Jet's). AND I apparently tend to think that Detroit-area nationally acclaimed pizza joints are just simply overrated. First it was Buddy's (it is truly beyond me why so many people find this place so great). Then Pizza Papalis (HATE Chicago-style). Now Gracie See's. (Though apparently Tomatoes Apizza has won some national acclaim, so I guess my tastes are right on national target there.)

And personally, if we're giving out awards to Detroit pizzerias, Amici's Gourmet Pizza should win. And, if I'm not mistaken, there is a location in Detroit (I know I've recently had some late-night delivery from there, and I'm pretty sure I've even driven by it in the past couple of months, but damned if I can find the info for it online now...and my drunken recollections are a little hard to trust).

So, Gracie See's. I wouldn't call it the best in Detroit, and certainly not among the best in the country, much less the world. But still...the fact that it did receive the recognition--being this tiny little run-down joint in Warrendale, of all places--is impressive, and merits at least one trip out there to experience it for yourself. Besides, it is tasty--and I'm willing to bet that dining in at this place is an experience all its own.