Standing in front of his namesake pizzeria, Emmett Burke has no problem firing the first salvo.
“Chicago-style pizza is actually pizza,” the Chicago-born 35-year-old says. “New York-style pizza is actually questionable, where I come from.”
New Yorkers are used to such trash talk from the Windy City, but Burke isn’t in Chicago. His deep-dish restaurant is in the heart of the South Village.
When Emmett’s opened in fall 2013 at 50 MacDougal St., the news attracted both suspicion from thin-crust, Neapolitan devotees and curiosity from those whose only taste of Chicago-style pizza was from Uno franchises.
New York, it seems, has an appetite for deep dish: Coming on five years later, Emmett’s continues to draw two-hour waits.
Burke’s pizza career started early; as a kid he delivered pies — the kind that demand a fork and knife.
“When I was younger I used to think how much fun it would be to have a restaurant,” Burke said. “A voice told me, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
He left the suburbs of Chicago for New York to attend Fordham University, graduating with an undergraduate degree in finance in 2005.
It didn’t take long for him to notice the absence of up-to-snuff Chicago-style goods in the city.
“I always felt that Chicago pizza was not well-represented here,” he said.
After quitting a finance industry job in 2010, Burke took a few years to test sauces and cooking times before opening Emmett’s in 2013.
“I’ve eaten so much pizza growing up, I had an idea what it had to taste like,” Burke said. “When I had the taste and the flavor profile I knew from back home, I knew it was time to open.”
The ingredients for Emmett’s deep dish pies are either grown locally, made in-house or imported from Chicago.
The deep dish pie is made in a two-inch-deep pan, and it’s light and airy. (“It’s a misconception that the deep dish is a brick of dough and cheese,” Burke said.)
Though Emmett’s stakes its reputation on authentic deep dish, it also offers thin-crust pies and a Chicago-style hot dog (that’s a boiled Vienna Beef wiener topped with dill pickle, sliced tomato, diced white onions, relish, sport peppers, celery salt and yellow mustard in a poppy seed bun).
“We don’t have a big menu, but what we do here, we’re really proud of,” Burke said.
He also prides himself on the atmosphere. It’s the kind of place where strangers talk to each other at adjoining tables and the music covers everything from The Kinks to Alan Vega to Tom Petty.
Waiting for a slice
New Yorkers and homesick Chicagoans alike wait up to two hours for one of Emmett’s 12 seats at the bar and seven or eight micro tables (it doesn’t help that deep dish takes 30 minutes to make, either).
On a recent weekday afternoon, Nicholas Dellatacoma and girlfriend Tina Cortese traveled from Staten Island to the restaurant to celebrate his birthday.
“We love to eat pizza,” said Cortese, 34, who was there on her second visit, Dellatacoma his first. “We found Emmett’s on a recommendation from a friend that works in the area.”
Cortese waited with camera phone in hand as waitress Kayla Curin carved into the pie. She raised the first slice high above the table, as long strings of mozzarella followed, before gently placing it on a plate.
“It’s completely different from a New York slice of pizza — it’s thicker and heavier, which is why you need the fork and knife to eat it,” said Cortese, whose favorite pizza comes from Staten Island’s Pizzeria Giove. “It’s definitely a different way of eating pizza from what we are used to.”
At the bar, Chicago native Blake Chana, 35, wielded his fork and knife. He has frequented Emmett’s since day one. Before it opened, the Clinton Hill resident once got his deep dish fix by mail-ordering pizza from Lou Malnati’s in Chicago.
“Once Emmett’s opened and I tried it for the first time, I was ecstatic,” Chana said. “Never again did I need a pizza to board a plane and fly 800 miles for me to enjoy true deep dish. All I have to do now is walk a few blocks from my office to get a true authentic taste of Chicago.”