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Deep Dish: Behind Enemy Lines22.12.2018

In this second installment of NYC’s Bad Boys of Pizza series (see first article about Scarr’s) I went to the SOHO section of Manhattan to meet up with Emmett Burke, the owner and pizza master at Emmett’s. His brave soul set out to serve pizza from his hometown of Chicago to the notoriously opinionated NYC pizza consumer. He has succeeded in this task with a loyal following both from consumers and fellow pizza masters.

You initially came to New York from Chicago for a corporate job. How did you segue into the pizza business?

I actually came to New York when I was 18 to go to Fordham up in the Bronx. For as long as I can remember, I thought it would be cool to own a restaurant. When I arrived here, I realized they didn’t have deep dish pizza, so my dream began to take hold. It’s a dream a lot of people have – like being an astronaut or deep sea fisherman, but the notion never left my head. Yeah, I had that corporate job for a little while and didn’t like it. I didn’t like the person that life wanted to turn me into. So I decided to put a stop to this sooner rather than later and began pursuing my dream of opening the pizzeria. A lot of people ask me what on Earth got me into this business? The clearest, most honest answer is my endless love of pizza. Making it. Eating it. Serving it. Everything about it. I just really love and appreciate pizza.

Did you apprentice somewhere else before you launched your pizza empire at Emmett’s?

I actually started making pizza in my apartment. Growing up in Chicago, I delivered pizzas. I ate a lot of pizza. In high school, I had a hot dog everyday, so I’ve always been really into Chicago fare. I believe in Chicago. Moving to New York, one of the things that spurred me on was how my city friends spoke about Chicago, like some cow pasture, like it was a “Small Town” John Mellencamp sang about or something. The people are real, the food is real and I want to promote all that Chicago has done, who we are.

Was the regional food movement that’s trending in New York – with hot chicken spots and barbecue joints popping up – a consideration of yours when you were opening? Or was it more, “I’m going to make what I love and be the best at it?”

No, I didn’t really think about that. Who I am and what I like is Chicago and Chicago style pizza. When I was setting out to open a restaurant, a friend of mine who owns one said, “Well, why don’t you open a Mexican spot? Good margins, great business!”. But I’m not Mexican, I’m from Chicago. This is what I know. I envisioned folks eating Chicago style pizza for the first time and I felt a responsibility to share it properly to a New York CIty clientele. As much fun as it is, it’s also a commitment I take seriously.

I respect that. When I first walked in here, you were very welcoming and personable. You had everything on the menu I was after, the deep dish obviously, but you had so many offerings many people don’t realize are iconic Chicago dishes – the Italian beef or the hot dog, which is different than anywhere else.

Better. It's better than anywhere else.

I love deep dish pizza. It put us on the map here at Emmett’s, but it’s not a style of pizza you can enjoy everyday. I tend to indulge more than most doctors might recommend.

From the pizza angle, Chicago is thought of as solely deep dish, but you make this pub style, very thin crust pizza which may rival New Haven in its thinness. It is, arguably, one of the best pizzas on your menu.

I promote this day in and day out. That’s the style most people in Chicago eat. Don’t get me wrong – I love deep dish pizza. It put us on the map here at Emmett’s, but it’s not a style of pizza you can enjoy everyday. I tend to indulge more than most doctors might recommend. Thin crust, or Tavern style pizza, is something everyone in Chicago grows up on. It’s lighter, it’s quicker, it’s easier to eat.

In Chicago, do cravings for thin crust versus deep dish require different destinations?

A lot of pizzerias serve both, but like any restaurant they focus on their specialty. As a Chicago pizza destination in New York, it was important we master both styles. I don’t have children, so it’s like these are my babies. I’m like the dad at a soccer game, trying to coach while strategizing plays, offense and defense. It’s still very fulfilling to come in, having laid the tracks so to speak, and watch people walk out with a smile.

Pizza is having a resurgence of sorts. There’s a sex appeal to the new wave of slice shops and pizzerias. In the old days, you had an Italian grandfather or grandmother making pies, legends of the New York pizza narrative. I think you’re reimagining that old world, while paying homage to it. Whenever I walk in, the parlor is filled with beautiful people. What’s driving your ideas behind being a seductive pizza destination?

I didn’t set out to be sexy. I set out to entertain and I think those can be one in the same. Sex sells, but it’s something we may have backed into. Pizza being trendy or sexed up? I can’t really say, because for me it’s always been so. I think it gets a lot of attention because it’s pretty damn good. It’s not expensive. I’m proud of the fact that a family of five can come in, have a great time, order a lot of food and walk out not having spent much more than they might have at Five Guys.

But then you elevate the experience with organic ingredients, beautiful wines and craft beers…

We love to elevate. Whatever we’re doing, we like doing it best. I’d actually never worked in a restaurant before I started here. There’s such a sharp learning curve, always something to refine. You can always learn more about wine, you can always learn more about bread, about service – always pulling the thread. With wine, when you drink something you like, why do you like it? Which characteristics stand out? Are you fond of this grower, this region, this vintage, this blend? The deeper you delve, the more heightened it gets.

When we opened, we didn’t have a website, we didn’t have a social media presence. I flipped the “Open” sign with my brother and kept moving.

Right, you can never be an expert in wine because once you learn something, new realms open up – the more you learn, the greener you are. You’re never going to be satisfied learning everything because you never will. That’s true with pizza too.

Plus people’s taste buds evolve. My understanding of wine has evolved, my appreciation of its qualities. Same can be said about fans of watches, cars, golf clubs or surf boards – the more you know, the more you’re going to appreciate the nuances. The overall quality of how something is done and done well.  

Passion drives everyone to keep doing their best. It’s obvious in your food, the atmosphere you create. The last thing I want to ask you about is the cool factor in the resurgence of pizza, this new vibe. Social media has made an impact raising awareness about Emmett’s and many other spots in the New York food scene. Ten years ago, would you have dreamt of having this much exposure?

Social media is a hot topic with any business. For us, it was about being the best we can be and hopefully it catches on. When the right celebrity or personality endorses what you’re doing we’re grateful. We’ve been open 5 years. When we opened, we didn’t have a website, we didn’t have a social media presence. I flipped the “Open” sign with my brother and kept moving. Everyone was asking who was marketing our identity. I was like, “What are you talking about, identity? It’s Emmett’s.” I had so many people walk up to me when we were opening asking, “What kind of a place is this going to be?” And I’d say, “A Chicago pizza place,” and they’d go, “Pizza?! There’s so many pizzerias man, you’re not gonna make it. Why would anyone want Chicago pizza?” After a while, when asked what kind of place this was going to be I’d say, “My kind of place,” and that was that. Believe me, we were opening in hostile territory. We do not have the home field advantage. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s something I’m proudly passionate to fight for.

Lastly, my curveball question: I know you did some modeling in the past, how did that resonate in your pizza business?

Actually, modeling found me in the pizza business. I had the place for a couple of years when a scout for Valentino came in. They were looking to use our space for a photo shoot. Simultaneously, they were looking for New York City personalities who represent the common man, the working man. It was a fun experience, but I was surprised with the amount of work that goes into one photo. I’ll stick to making pies.

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Proud New Yorker, a passionate traveler, scout for the new & useful and lover of all things delicious. On the field, he’s a global results-driven innovator, digital grown-up and social executive with over 20 years’ experience in creative production and advertising in companies like Omnicom, Major League Gaming, Ted Steel Entertainment and Ars Thanea. Currently, Erik is a Professor at Parsons School of Design.

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