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It's true: New Yorkers eating up deep dish

4-hour wait at Lake Forest native's pizzeria

Christopher Borrelli

8:45 AM CDT, March 13, 2014

NEW YORK

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A year ago, the hottest slob food in Manhattan was the cronut. Perhaps you heard about it: Created (and copyrighted) by SoHo's Dominique Ansel Bakery, the cronut, an unholy and addictive union of croissant and doughnut, proved so popular to trendy New Yorkers that waits for the innovative pastry stretched past three hours. A small black market on Craigslist even sprang up to deliver fresh cronuts at inflated scalper prices. A year later, however, fickle New York has moved on, and the cronut, while still somewhat popular (though replicated now at bakeries nationwide), is facing an unlikely slice of competition: Chicago deep dish.

Yes, the pizza that many New Yorkers love to claim is not pizza has become one of the most sought-after dishes in lower Manhattan. Actually, only two blocks from Dominique is the heartbeat of the frenzy: a small, tin-roofed, tavernlike storefront named Emmett's, opened in late November by Lake Forest native Emmett Burke, who, at 31, decided to leave behind his stressful life of high finance and introduce New York to the pride of Chicago. Smart wager: Emmett's is so hot right now that, on a Sunday night I put my name in for a table at 5:30 p.m., sat down about 8:30 p.m. and received my handsome (if undistinguished) pizza at 9:30 p.m.

Emmett's is so popular that, even in the dead of this winter, an eager crowd can often be found milling around outside, curious to learn about this strange, magical species of pizza that takes 50 minutes to bake.

And how hot is the pizza itself?

So hot that Burke, who runs the 30-seat spot with barkeep brother Dillon — the pair have the easy looks of J.Crew models and casual dudeness of Dave Matthews fans — places an egg timer next to each pizza, a thoughtful reminder to let your cheesy monster settle. See, New York may be considered a place where one can score anything at any time, but until Emmett's, its deep dish didn't go much deeper than Pizzeria Uno.

"My entire life, my passions have been golf and pizza," said Emmett. "I was a caddy for years at Bob O'Link (in Highland Park), and I delivered Ferentino's pizza in Lake Forest right through high school, and when I went off to college (Fordham University, in the Bronx), I seriously thought that it was crazy you couldn't find deep dish in New York. No one even knew what it was! So I started putting money away, but went off to do something else." He worked for a decade as a bond trader in Chicago; then for a French bank in New York.

All the while, like some pie-eyed Horatio Alger, Emmett Burke stayed focused on this singular vision of a New York friendly to deep dish, quietly collecting restaurant tchotchkes and, in his apartment, learning to make pizza. Last year, he left finance, went to Paris, then moved into a beach house on Long Island. The man had to find himself: "The whole time, in the back of my head, I knew that I would return and make pizza. Some people thought it was calculated, like if it didn't work, I would try sushi. No, man, that's not what I'm about."

For the first couple of weeks he was open, Emmett said, the customers were neighbors, who sidled up to the marble bar. "But as we started bringing out pizza, people would ask if it was cake, and soon word spread, and then the foodies came."

Today, though Emmett's pizza would be generic in Chicago (the crust is stiff, the sauce just OK), the demand is high: Weekend waits have hit four hours; the night that I visited, Emmett was fielding calls every few minutes, patiently explaining they could take no more orders that night.

He began saying this at 7 p.m.

Frankly, he looked overwhelmed by New York's curiosity, struggling to explain to some customers that deep-dish pizza takes longer to bake than normal pizza, surrounded by others who stared google-eyed at his creations, snapping pictures of the pizzas with their phones, even taking selfies with their giant pizzas.

Later he told me: "I think it's going to be a learning curve with deep dish and New York. This one woman told me: 'If the pizza takes so long to cook, maybe you should turn up the oven.' I'm thinking, lady, you think you're the first one to think of that? And some say it's not really pizza. But I think it's pizza, and if a jerk from Connecticut wants to come in and say it's not pizza, look, I got more important things to worry about."

Coincidentally, Emmett's opened the same week that Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" launched into an infamous rant against deep dish, calling it "tomato soup in a bread bowl!"

Emmett said Stewart has not been in yet: "But weirdly, I met him. I saw him coming out of a pizzeria on Bleecker Street with Bruce Springsteen. So I went up and handed him my cell phone and said, 'Hey, Jon, can you take a picture of me with Bruce?'"

(He did.)

cborrelli@tribune.com