You probably wouldn’t expect to find authentic Neapolitan pizza in Southwest Detroit. But sure enough, down a mostly disheveled section of Vernor Highway, inside a quaint conjoined storefront, PizzaPlex is churning out the wood-fired, chewy pies, unlike almost anywhere else in the state.
This pizza isn’t just authentic. It’s straight up certified. Only four months after opening in September, PizzaPlex’s fare earned the title of Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN), or True Neapolitan Pizza, by Naples-based Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The organization was founded in 1984 with a mission of protecting the legacy of true Neapolitan pizza.
To be deemed a VPN, pizzerias must meet every qualification as outlined in an 11-page manual. “The main [requirements] are the ingredients we use, the technique we use to make the pizza, and the equipment we use to make the pizza,” explains co-owner Alessandra Carreon. “Also the conditions that exist while we make the pizza: everything from the kind of flour and tomatoes, to the kind of oven — in our case, wood-fired.” PizzaPlex is only the second pizzeria in Michigan to earn the distinction (and the 701st in the world).
Co-owners and husband and wife duo, Carreon and Drew McUsic, learned the art of Neapolitan pizza making after getting married in Naples. The two attended the Scuola di Pizzaiolo, a third-generation pizza academy, which also happens to be where Carreon’s family has learned to make pizza for generations.
In 2016, the two decided to turn their love of Neapolitan pizza into a business. “It wasn’t a question of do we want to go for VPN or shall we do a different kind of pizza because I know what feels like home and what comes more natural to me is pizza di Napoli,” says Carreon, who is Neapolitan and Filipina. Since last April, their instructor from Scuola di Pizzaiolo has traveled to Detroit twice to mentor and teach their staff.
The decades of experience are evident in every pie. Fresh mozzarella, whole leaves of basil, and, of course, tangy San Marzano tomatoes, give each 12-inch pizza its distinctive flavor. But while delicious, authentic pizza is the cornerstone of the business, it’s certainly not the only concern for Carreon.
PizzaPlex operates as a low-profit, “triple bottom line” LLC. “For PizzaPlex, being a triple bottom line business means that we know profit is important to sustain the business, but we would never do that at the expense of taking care of people or the planet,” Carreon says.
In the same vein, the business is also in the process of becoming a worker-owned cooperative.
As if that wasn’t enough to make you feel good about devouring a whole pie, the business also practices another Naples tradition: sospeso. Here, customers can pay it forward by purchasing food and drink in advance for customers in need. Beyond that, PizzaPlex runs a sospeso program for local nonprofits, donating pizzas for upcoming events. On a chalkboard near to the register, customers can see how many pizzas are left to contribute and can add a pie to their order.
The community aspect is hugely important to Carreon. Mindful of gentrification, the co-owner wants to position the business as a community center in southwest Detroit. “We’re not building a new community, we’re amplifying,” she says. While one half of the building is a dedicated dining room, the other side is a 1,000-square-foot area outfitted with tables, couches, a foosball table, a book exchange, a clothing exchange, a huge projector screen, and more.
“It’s really meant to reflect whatever our patrons or neighbors would like to see in the space.” The area also serves as an event space for organizations and nonprofits.
For Carreon, all of these aspects, from food to community, are the driving force behind the business. “I think our definition of success is in a place where we cannot just do one thing. If we were (which we aren’t), extremely profitable, if we had this rush of people, we would not be satisfied,” she explains. “We’d be just simply unsatisfied until we can get to this collective vision of what we can be.”
Even so, “The food will always have to be excellent,” Carreon adds. “No compromise.”
4458 W. Vernor Highway, Detroit; 313-757-4992; pizzaplex.wordpress.com