Motor It

Slice Project co-owner Brando Sencion shows off a freshly baked “313” (pepperoni) and its crispy edges that are caramelized, not burnt, by melting brick cheese.

I first learned of Detroit-style pizza sometime in late 2020 from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Square Pie Guys, a San Francisco-based Detroit-style pizza joint that was opening an outpost in Oakland.

The pizza style – distinguished by being baked in a deep, rectangular pan and cheese-crisped edges – was exploding in popularity in the hippest food scenes in America, a fact that had somehow flown under my radar.

I knew I had to taste for myself, but I never got around to it before moving back to the Monterey Peninsula, and figured it would have to wait for a future trip up to the East Bay. I was wrong: a few weeks ago, a friend informed me there was a spot serving Detroit-style pizza in… Watsonville?

Detroit-style pizza has indeed infiltrated the 831. Slice Project, founded by brothers and Watsonville natives Kristian and Brando Sencion, has been slinging Detroit-style pies – along with New York-style – since late 2019.

After my friend brought me a slice of their Detroit-style pepperoni that I impatiently devoured before even thinking to reheat it, I resolved to visit the spot as soon as I could in order to taste it fresh out of the oven.

I popped in on a recent Wednesday just before the 4pm evening shift to watch how Detroit-style pizzas get made. First, Brando pulls out a deep, 8-by-10-inch rectangular pan already lined with dough on the bottom, and begins sprinkling the dough’s edges with shredded brick cheese, which is richer and sharper than mozzarella, and which, Brando says, is the secret to caramelizing the edges of the crust as it cooks. He then adds a bit more of the brick to the center, and then blankets the center with shredded mozzarella.

Next he dollops a few scoops of the Detroit-style sauce – a bit chunkier than their New York-style, and with a bit more oregano – onto the cheese, then he pulls out the pepperoni and shows me how it’s thicker than the kind they use for their New York-style pies, as is traditional for Detroit-style (it will cup up beautifully when it cooks). He then pops it into the oven, 590 degrees Fahrenheit, and sets a timer for 10 minutes, which gives the brothers a little time to tell me how they got here.

Kristian, 32, has spent his whole career in kitchens, including stints locally at Lafayette Bakery in Carmel, jeninni kitchen in Pacific Grove, where he spent five years honing his craft, and ultimately at Corkscrew Cafe in Carmel Valley, where for a time he was in charge of pizzas.

Brando, 28, studied political science at UC Santa Barbara, and after graduating went to work at a nonprofit in Watsonville – Santa Cruz Community Ventures – where he helped teach financial capabilities to low-income families. A big part of that was business ownership, which got Brando thinking: he loves beer, his brother knows pizza-making – why don’t they open their own pizzeria?

The two opened up Slice Project in December 2019 in downtown Watsonville, in what used to be the lobby of the old Fox Theater. Originally, Brando says, the idea was to just bake New York-style pizza, but on a beer scouting mission to Cellarmaker Brewing Co. in San Francisco, Brando saw they had their own in-house Detroit-style pizzeria. So he ordered one, and loved it.

“It was the first time it was on my radar,” Brando says. “I came back and told Kris, ‘Dude, we have to have a Detroit square.”

Slice Project offers just two types of Detroit-style pies, the “313” (pepperoni) and cheese option, “Red Top,” which has two stripes of sauce across the top, like a race car.

When Brando pulls the pan out of the oven and places the pizza on a meshed-wire tray, the crust is beautifully caramelized around the edges, and the cups of pepperoni glisten with fat. Unsurprisingly, it was even more delicious hot.

The Detroit-style pizzas at Slice Project aren’t available by the slice. If you drop by, be sure that it’s not a weekday between 12:30-1pm when the place fills up with students from Watsonville High.

“The line is out the door,” Brando says, and though it’s hard to tell behind his mask, it looks like he’s smiling.

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