If New York City and Detroit had a baby, it would look a lot like Lions & Tigers & Squares, the Detroit-style pizza shop in downtown Manhattan. Opened in 2018 by fourth-generation pizzaioli Francis Garcia and his cousin and best friend Sal Basille, the shop brings an authentic Detroit-style pizza experience to the Big Apple.

While Lions & Tigers & Squares has a menu that is as Detroit as it comes, one of its most unique signature pies actually borrows from a Trenton, New Jersey innovation. That would be the Mustard Pie, said to have been accidentally invented when an inebriated customer was attempting to order a “mushroom pie” but slurred their speech.

The Lions & Tigers & Squares version of the Mustard Pie is made with a thick layer of golden brown spicy mustard, a touch of sauerkraut, some corned beef and, of course, the block cheddar cheese one would find atop traditional Detroit-style pizza.

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“It’s the ingredients to a reuben sandwich, but it’s not really like a reuben, because it’s mostly mustard and cheese,” Garcia said. “Those other ingredients just add a little tang, crunch and smoky flavor.”

The Mustard Pie is one of the shop’s best-selling items. Other bestsellers include the Pepperoni pie, made with hand-cut cupped pepperoni, and The Detroiter (on the menu as the “Classic”) which is essentially a Detroit-style cheese pizza. There’s also a seasonal Mushroom Pie—made with garlic, parsley and robust seasoning—giving the opportunity for another late-night customer to accidentally order a Mustard Pie.

It’s fair to say that Garcia and Basille are unlikely owners of perhaps the best known Detroit-style pizzeria in New York City. The duo are best friends and cousins from childhood, having grown up on the same block together in Staten Island. The friends opened up Artichoke Basille’s Pizza in 2008 to great success—it has grown to eighteen locations since and earned the two national renown as pizzaioli. In other words, there’s nothing obvious in their history that would shout “best Detroit-style pizza shop” in New York City.

So how did the shop come to be, then? Lions & Tigers & Squares owes its origins to a trip Garcia and Basille took while hosting their own Cooking Channel show, Pizza Masters (formerly known as Pizza Cuz), where they’d travel the country in search of some of the best mom-and-pop shops in the country. For one episode, they made a pilgrimage to the original Buddy’s Pizza and had their minds blown by Detroit-style pizza. This was some ten years ago, or long before Detroit-style pizza was on the national radar.

“Detroit-style was just different,” Garcia said. “I never would’ve thought to use cheddar cheese on a pizza. It’s greasy as all hell but that helps texturize the dough and it bakes into the crust and the cheese makes a huge difference in giving it its own unique style. I immediately loved it.”

Looking to diversify their holdings in New York, Basille and Garcia figured Detroit-style pizza would be a perfect fit in the big city. Garcia was aware of one other shop that did the style in New York at the time, but that was a sit-down restaurant. Garcia figured a fast-casual restaurant would be perfect for the format, since Detroit-style pies hold well.

The Lions & Tigers & Squares storefront at 23rd St. and 8th Ave. in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.

Actually naming the shop is a good story in its own right. Lions & Tigers & Squares riffs on the NFL and MLB teams of Detroit and the shape of the city’s distinct style of pizza. Prior to coming up with that, however, the working name for the shop was Fair and Square. Garcia was told by his lawyer that it would be hard to copyright the intellectual property to the shop since “Fair and Square” is a common phrase. So Garcia went back to the drawing board and started hammering away at ideas in the Notes app on his iPhone. When “Lions & Tigers & Squares” popped into his head, he immediately called the lawyer to see if he thought it might work.

“And he told me to stop smoking pot so early in the morning,” Garcia laughed. “And then he said, ‘And of course it’s not taken—nobody else would think of that.’”

The storefront now sits on the corner of 23rd St. and 8th Ave., in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The buildout is inspired by the original Buddy’s Pizza—complete with high windows and a full bar that reflect the fact that Buddy’s was formerly a speakeasy—combined with New York sensibilities. Garcia describes the interior as “something you’d see in an old mafia movie.”

Garcia said he and Basille worked tirelessly to ensure Lions & Tigers & Squares delivers an authentic Detroit experience, even if there’s still some New York memorabilia on the walls to center the shop in its surroundings. In the five years since the shop has been opened, Garcia has been amazed by how many folks native to Michigan flocked to the pizzeria and approved of the Detroit-style pies and the ambiance of it all. He sought feedback and attempted to stock certain requests, including Faygo, a soda that many Detroiters crave outside of their native land.

That energy is reflected in the shop, but it’s the Mustard Pie that truly sets Lions & Tigers & Squares apart from the many Detroit-style competitors that have popped up in New York since.

Food & Ingredients