Celebrating a Decade of Emmett's Pizza
"My obsession, it's my creation. You'll understand, it's not important now."
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Talking with Emmett Burke
“Find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life.” —Max Fischer
When it comes to pizza in New York, it’s hard for me to pick an all-time favorite pizza place. There will always be Pepi’s in Oneida, New York, the pizza parlor of my youth. In Brooklyn, naturally there’s Lucali and for my favorite utility slice, the House of Pizza and Calzone, just a few doors down from my old apartment on Union Street. I really dig Ops but haven’t stopped by in a while. I spend more time these days at Leo for their potato slice and New York pie with pepperoni (and one of the best Caesar Salads in town). FINI is growing on me lately, especially the white slice drizzled with their homemade Calabrian Chili Honey. And I probably should be embarrassed to say I’ve never been to L&B Spumoni Gardens, L’Industrie Pizzeria, or Scarr’s. But I love pizza. I had it three nights in a row last week, but that’s something I should probably keep to myself.
And since they first opened on MacDougal in 2013 and later on Grove in 2021, I’ve been a huge fan of Emmett’s, a New York pizzeria with a decidedly Chicago point of view. Beyond the amazing deep dish pizza and thin-crust Chicago-style pies, a big draw for me is Emmett himself, founder and owner Emmett Burke. Burke has spent more than half of his life as a New Yorker, but he’s a Chicago boy through and through, having grown up in Lake Forest on the North Shore.
Like Joel Goodsen in the Chicago-set film Risky Business, Burke is an idea man and entrepreneur. In high school he delivered pizzas in Chicago (John Hughes’ house was a favorite frequent stop on his route) and caddied at country clubs. And when he moved to New York at 18 to attend Fordham in the Bronx he was shocked that the city that had everything, was lacking Chicago-style pizza.
Thankfully Burke remedied that dilemma and yesterday, 11/12/13, marked the 10th anniversary of the opening of Emmett’s Pizza on MacDougal Street in Soho. I always love talking with Emmett whenever I see him, usually about pizza, dive bars, and 80s music (he’s an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark kind of guy; we’ll have him back soon for a Dive Bar Jukebox), and movies. Last week I had the chance to sit down with Burke before service in the back booth of Emmett’s on Grove to talk about the 10th anniversary, building out and designing the two spaces, the intricacies of deep dish and thin-crust Chicago-style pizza, why Chicago beats New York when it comes to hot dogs, dive bars, Bill Murray, his philosophy of taking the unexpected left turns in life, and so much more.
Learning to Say “Yes” to Everything
Have you always been obsessed with pizza?
Emmett: Everyone always asks me that. I grew up delivering pizzas and I think I like pizza as much as anyone who likes pizza does. I don't think there's like this, you know, competition. I think a lot of people just really love pizza. But when I got to school in New York, they didn't have Chicago-style pizza, and I thought it was crazy that there was no deep dish or thin-crust pizza.
Did you file that away as for a future idea when you were in business school?
Emmett: I would always kind of think about it. During my sophomore year we were asked to design a company or a business for a marketing class, and everyone was coming up with some dog collar business or whatever. And I came up with this idea: Emmett's LSD, for Emmett's Lake Shore Dive. It would be a dive bar that served Chicago food like Italian beef and pizza. I couldn’t believe that in New York, the city that has everything, there was no Chicago pizza.
And that was the spark for your pizza dream?
Emmett: The idea kind of came to me before then because I used to always think about how it would be cool to have a restaurant. When I was a kid I used to freeze ice cubes made of Coca-Cola so when they melt in your Coke it wouldn’t get watery. I was always thinking of things like that. And later when I was working at the bank I would always think about things like that, off in my own world, as far as where my head was at.
When did you get closer to making that dream a reality?
I was living in New York in this apartment really close to here [Emmett’s on Grove]. I still live there. It was a four-bedroom and I had roommates, and when they left I started filling it with people off of Craigslist from all over the world. I thought that would be cool. I’m this dorky guy from Chicago and it was great to come to New York and meet these people from all over the world. I really liked that.
And things played out that I was offered a position in San Francisco, but I was gonna be working New York hours in San Francisco. I think I was like 27. What the hell am I doing this for? So they came out to wine and dine me over a steak dinner and I entertained the idea. But I was like, why would I move across the country when I don’t really like this job? And why am I doing this job in the first place?
Is that when you quit?