Michael Lucchese ’18 often declared that “there is no good pizza east of Chicago.” He was, of course, speaking in praise of the deep-dish ball of dough and tomato chunks invented by Uno Pizza in 1943 — a midwestern icon which has clogged the Second City’s windpipes (and sewage pipes) ever since.
Lucchese and his ilk don’t account for the phenomenon that is 99 Cent Pizza, the cheesy disk of grease many a hurried New Yorker has shoved down his throat since God knows when. New York style pizza is sweet, messy, and will undoubtedly leave you with stomach cramps or, in my case last week, something much worse.
But for those caught between the Windy City and the Big Apple, there’s a third option — a literal middle way — between New York and Chicago’s pizza fare: Detroit’s very own Little Caesars. Little C’s is bland, reliable, and the only truly fast-food pizza widely available. At five bucks a pie, it’s the best deal in Michigan, perhaps the world.
The secret to its greatness is that Little Caesars didn’t create anything new. Like the car companies out of Detroit, it only perfected the means of production, extending the mediocre to the masses. Since 2004, it has offered the “Hot-N-Ready” deal, which I shouldn’t even explain: You walk up to the window, pull a sweaty bill out of your back pocket, and blammo — habemus pizza.
Hot-N-Ready works so well because with it, Little Caesars introduced the Rotary Air Impingement Oven (patented only several years before in 1997) to the pizza making game. It’s essentially a hot air gun pointed right at your pizza, evenly cooking a pie in seconds. This is the technology that allows a place as small the Hillsdale, Michigan, Little Caesars to pump out 300 pizzas a day — but also made it possible for the similarly sized Little Caesars in Greensboro, North Carolina, to make 13,386 pizzas in one sitting, the largest order on record for the company.
Then there’s the lore surrounding the company’s Detroit history. Founded in 1959 by the son of Macedonian immigrants Mike Illitch, Little Caesars has always been a family company that stuck with Detroit even when things went bad. Before his death in 2017, Illitch poured his soul into his company and the city, using its brand-name and his ownership of the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Red Wings to prop up the city. This year Little Caesars Arena opened in downtown Detroit, hosting both Red Wings and the Pistons. It joins Little Caesars headquarters, which takes a great part of Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre.
But that’s not to say the company doesn’t have its shortcomings. It unveiled a new logo in 2017, removing the Caesar’s iconic chest hair and rearranging his laurel crown to dispel any notion that he had just left a bacchanalian feast. It was as if an occult hand erased everything that Little C’s stood for. Cheap hot pizza shouldn’t be sold by a guy who looks like he’s about to trot off to Sunday brunch; it should be sold by the guy who hosts monthly Gran Torino watch parties. So it goes.
The next time you pull into a Little Caesars, as you bask in that warm neon glow, remember the prodigal son come home. And when the server hands you that Hot-N-Ready pizza, those words — perhaps the most beautiful ever written — will come to mind: “Pizza! Pizza!”