First, a clarification: Though the moniker on the well-lit marquee on 23rd Street just east of Eighth Avenue reads “Lion & Tigers & Squares” — echoing a chant from Wizard of Oz — the pizzas at this Chelsea restaurant are not square at all, but six-by-nine-inch rectangles. They are baked two at a time in black metal pans, then lined up side by side behind a sneeze guard on the counter. The crust is about an inch thick at the edges, and not as thick in the middle, but heaped with toppings that sometimes stick up above the crust, giving the product a look of orderly lushness.
Lions & Tigers & Squares is a project of Francis Garcia, owner of Artichoke Basille’s, a local pizza chain that turns out some awful pies as far as I’m concerned — especially its vaunted artichoke slice, which tastes like someone poured cream of artichoke soup in its canned and concentrated form on the pie. The Detroit pizzas at Lions & Tigers, at 268 West 23rd St., are much better, even memorable — the result of a reverent and detail-oriented recreation of another city’s primary pizza style, one that’s become increasingly popular across the country.
The toppings here are exceedingly basic. The simplest pie features a thick tomato puree, brick cheese “from Wisconsin,” as the counter attendant told me, “with a little provolone added, and a sprinkle of pecorino Romano.” Other pizzas add black olives, pepperoni, pepperoni and pepperoncini, mushrooms, and Italian sausage and onions to the formula. Prices range from $5 to $10, and the pizzas are cut into four pieces before being served in a form-fitting box. Of the pies I weighed, the average was one pound, five ounces, making it very heavy. In fact, if you take two home with you, they feel like bricks on the handlebars of your bike. You might just be taking them home with you anyway. [Note: Shortly after this piece was published, the restaurant raised the price range of its pizzas to $!0 to $12.]
The premises are shallow, so there’s only room for three small standing tables and an eat-in counter. Despite the take-out size, the place is a bit glitzy, and not just because of the theatrical marquee outside. Framed rock and sports posters decorate the walls, and three hubcaps hang on a brick wall. Yes, the Detroit décor is ham-fisted and not very convincing.
But onto my impressions of the pizza: The pies are crunchy on the bottom and sides from almost unimaginable levels of grease. The pies that feature meat, like those with pepperoni, Italian sausage, and tiny meatballs (made with beef, the pizza guy assured me) are the greasiest, and sometimes leave oily pools in the bottom of the box.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but you’ll have to eat these pies with a slice in one hand and a thick absorbent napkin in the other. Due to this richness, one pie easily makes an entire meal.
What is Detroit pizza anyway? According to Eater Detroit editor Brenna Houck, the crust should be crunchy, with the cheese on the bottom, and the tomato sauce on top. The recipe and method of baking causes cheese to overflow the pie and form a crusty toasted ridge around it between pan and pie. This overall oiliness is abetted by the brick cheese, which has a very high fat content. (Note that New York has long had square Sicilian slices with the “upside down” configuration of cheese on the bottom and tomato sauce on top, at places like L & B Spumoni Gardens and Pipitone’s.)
Overall, I particularly liked the greasier pies at Lions and Tigers and Squares, including the Italian sausage, in which the onions add divine flavor to the bland cheese, and the one that features tiny meatballs. The pepperoni pie is sadly lacking in flavor, and so is the plain cheese and tomato sauce pie. As the popularity of Detroit-style via restaurants like Emmy Squared continues, it seems to me that Lions & Tigers & Squares does a fine job of recreating the original Detroit version.