The first person to melt and caramelize cheese on toasted dough must have known that something special had happened, and their legacy can be found in cuisines all over the world, from grilled cheese to quesadillas. And pizza, of course.
Detroit-style pizza is one of the modern beneficiaries of this culinary innovation, and Lawrence’s Big Mill has brought this Motor City variant of pizza to Lawrence in a historic building — a former laundromat, among other things — at the corner of Ninth and Mississippi streets.
The key elements of this regional variety are the use of a heavy metal deep-dish pan (classically a motor oil pan), a thick, well-oiled crust, and a substantial layer of shredded cheese applied directly to the crust and pan and then baked without toppings, which are added later.
As a result of this technique, both crust and cheese (especially the cheese that touches the edges of the pan) become darkly and richly caramelized, crunchy and robustly flavored. Big Mill uses Wisconsin Brick Cheddar, which fuses with the crust to form the structure and highlight of every pizza here.
There are many styles of toppings available, from expected to regional. Pepperoni and Margherita pizzas are available for the unadventurous, but most of the menu’s offerings are re-creations of Detroit favorites.
The Detroit Deluxe features a red tomato sauce, which is baked onto the cheese and crust base in dollops, and then covered in freshly piped ricotta cheese and grated pecorino, which are applied after baking. This provides a very satisfying contrast of textures and temperatures, and highlights the crust rather than smothering it.
The Beer Can BBQ Chicken pizza, topped with pineapple relish and a distinctly beery shredded chicken, is less of a pleasing match with the crust, but is still flavorful and well executed.
There also are loaded vegetarian options, such as Night Moves, with spinach, artichokes, and mushrooms, but these suffer somewhat from overcomplication. The crust does not shine under so many flavors and can become compressed and damp. Simpler offerings like the 313, with only red sauce as a topping, better highlight the joys of Detroit-style pizza.
The rest of the Big Mill menu is also well executed. Most of the options are either Italian American staples or Detroit favorites. The fish ‘n’ chips basket stands out, made from cold-water favorite walleye, batter-fried to architecturally sharp crispness. Other highlights include Italian-inspired sandwiches, pork meatballs served simply with red sauce and focaccia, and the umami force of blistered broccoli, topped with anchovy butter and toasted olives.
Some offerings on the menu feel like they don’t really fit the style of the restaurant; the chicken sandwich and various burgers are well made but unnecessary.
The bar is decidedly upscale, offering original and classic cocktails, local craft beers on tap, and a wine list that matches the flavors on the menu and focuses on Italian imports. Notably missing are the cheap can beers and red table wines that are part of the humbler origins of Detroit cuisine.
Big Mill’s interior is comfortable, roomy, and cleverly decorated. Historic information about the building is featured on murals, and components of the laundromat that preceded Big Mill are incorporated into the wall hangings.
The space is well laid out, with the bar, service stations and kitchen close to the dining area, making service fast and attentive. The patio suffers somewhat from its location, with views mostly consisting of parking lots and a gas station.
The prices at Big Mill are in line with downtown Lawrence standards, but the location lacks the walkability and atmosphere of downtown. The ingredients are appreciably high-quality, though, and the skills of the kitchen are at or above downtown standards.
Overall: 9/10. The pizza is both outstanding and unique in Lawrence, but skip the patio and stick to the Detroit core of the menu.
— Elwood Schaad (he/him) is a longtime Lawrencian who has worked in nearly every role at many local restaurants over the years, and who has a deep love of Lawrence’s local food culture. Read more of his reviews for the Times here.