Photos by Liz Barclay; GIFs and art by Amy Chen
Last November, when Emmett Burke opened his Soho pizzeria specializing in Chicago-style deep dish, New Yorkers were more than a little confused. The locals here take their thin-crust, easy-to-fold, eat-on-the-run pizza seriously, and many don’t understand how a two-inch-high boat of crust loaded with a mix of sauce, cheese, and sausage could even be called “pizza.”
Seeing that New York is a city that embraces Southern fried chicken, Texas-style BBQ, and any number of regional dishes, its aversion to Chicago deep dish seems somewhat irrational. But fierce pizza pride has long kept deep dish at bay (even the popular national chain Uno has struggled to gain a foothold here).
That didn’t deter Burke—a Windy City expat who held a job delivering pizza in his teens—from thinking up the idea for Emmett’s 13 years ago as a freshman at Fordham, and finally realizing his pizza dreams last fall.
“It’s always been in the back of my head, and I’ve always wanted to do this. I turned 30 last year and I said, okay, now is the time,” says Burke, who previously worked in finance. He has no formal pizza training; he simply started experimenting with deep-dish recipes out of his apartment before opening shop.
I don’t feel like I have to prove that it’s pizza. I think deep-dish is great pizza, it’s just a different style.
Burke is fully aware of New Yorkers’ skepticism of regional pizza riffs. “It’s funny when you get some New Yorker saying that this isn’t pizza. You have John Stewart—and just the other week you had Supreme Court Justice Scalia—coming out and saying deep-dish is not pizza,” says Burke. “For me, it’s like, I don’t feel like I have to prove that it’s pizza. I think deep dish is great pizza, it’s just a different style.”
To help us understand, we asked Burke to explain the ins and outs of Chicago’s famous pizza. Basically, it’s built from dough, marinara sauce, cheese, and toppings—but that’s where the similarities to a “regular” pie end. Below, we take you through a full anatomy of the beast, so you can get a feeling for the architecture and proportions of a deep-dish pizza.
Emmett’s crust is considerably thinner than a Sicilian crust, but slightly thicker than the crust of New York-style pizza. It’s also reasonably flaky and crunchy, built to hold up under the weight of the toppings. “If you put tons of sauce, cheese, and toppings onto the crust, you need a stronger foundation,” explains Burke.
If you put tons of sauce, cheese, and toppings onto the crust, you need a stronger foundation
“I’d say it’s like a Roman-style pizza crust, but it’s also a bit like pie crust,” he says. Popular add-ins to the deep-dish crust—besides the traditional flour, water, salt, and yeast—are cornmeal, shortening, and oils. Another unique factor about Emmett’s crust: It proofs for an hour or two, then cold ferments in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours to develop flavor.
Emmett explains that some of his customers want their deep-dish crust much more buttery than what he’s turning out. He says, “There are certain places in Chicago where you can order butter crust, I understand that, but we wanted to create something that doesn’t feel like you’re going to have a heart attack when you eat it.”
Two different cheeses go into Emmett’s pies, but the main focus is mozzarella. “We use a high-quality mozzarella that’s readily available. It’s definitely low moisture, and it’s a combination of skim and whole milk. We use a pretty hefty portion of cheese—approximately 1¼ pounds.”
Another key differentiating factor of Chicago deep-dish: “The sauce goes on top of the cheese and the toppings, which is why I say deep-dish is like an upside-down pizza,” Burke says.
Burke uses all-pork sausage that he sources from a small butcher in the Bronx. He chooses to have it ground fine and cut into large chunks, which departs from the Chicago tradition of sausage applied in crumbles.
In the movie Ferris Bueller, you have Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago. Froman represents the fact that sausage in Chicago is taken very seriously.
“We want to make sure if you order sausage, you really get sausage. We’re very proud of our sausage, so we think there should be a lot of it,” says Burke. “In the movie Ferris Bueller, you have Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago. Abe Froman represents the fact that sausage in Chicago is taken very seriously.”
Burke offers other traditional toppings like pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper, and onion—but he doesn’t want ingredients like apples or prosciutto near his pie. “If you had a bunch of exotic toppings on there, I think it would take away from the subtleties of the cheese and the sauce,” he says.
Each large pizza at Emmett’s contains a whopping 1¼ cups of sauce. “It’s one of the first things you taste when you bite into the pizza,” explains Burke.
“The sauce is going to be a bit chunkier than a typical puree that you see in many New York pizzerias. It’s got some tang and also some sweetness,” he says. Emmett’s uses whole canned tomatoes from California and a special blend of spices (we tasted a strong hint of garlic and oregano).
The Final Touches
Before the pizza goes into the double-decker Blodgett oven for approximately 30 minutes, the pie is topped with dried basil and a pecorino Romano and parmesan blend.
“A really important component of an oven is the stones,” says Burke. “This oven is almost 50 years old, so the stones are really well-seasoned. The oven comes from a pizzeria up the street that was called Pizza Box.”
How to Eat It
Burke explains that you must let the pizza sit for a few minutes once it comes out of the oven to let the cheese settle. “If we were to cut it and serve the slice right away, it would kind of turn into a mess. When you let it sit, it hardens a little bit and has better structure.” We’ll be the first to tell you that it’s pretty damn hard to not dig into this cheesy, saucy behemoth immediately.
And when you do, don’t worry about having a di Blasio moment. Emmett says, “If you want you can pick it up, but a lot of people start with a knife and fork.” Easy enough.
Go try this pizza
Address: 50 Macdougal St (917-639-3571)
Hours: Wednesday to Saturday 5:30pm—1am; Tuesday and Sunday 5:30pm—midnight (closed Monday)