50 Macdougal Street (b/n Houston and Prince), New York, NY 10012 (map); 917-639-3571
Setting: Cozy local tavern straight out of Chicago, though one third the size
Service: Generally clueless and bowled over by the crowds
Price: About $20 a head
Pizza type: Chicago deep dish
Oven type: Gas
Must-Haves: The wine and beer list is surprisingly good
Recommendation: Head there in three months when the buzz dies down and the bar is easier to get into.
Emmett's, a three-month-old South Village tavern, has everything a local pub could need. There's a cozy room, a surprisingly good wine and beer list, and tastefully eclectic decor that skirts TGI Friday's kitsch.
But eating there poses two problems: food that is not very good and a long queue of prospective diners who think that it is.
The fault does not lie with Emmett's alone. Unlike other charming New York pubs with mediocre food, Emmett's offers a regional specialty—Chicago deep dish pizza—that's won it a hurricane of media attention, from breathless opening stories to think pieces to outright damnations of the form from those who've never tasted it. (On this last point, if you can handle what burritos do for Mexican food, you can deal with what Chicago does for pizza.)
So the crowds have come, and the unpolished crew at Emmett's is at an utter loss for how to deal with the rush, which is why waits can stretch as long as three hours for a table jammed right against its neighbor. Should owner Emmett Burke have expected this? Perhaps, but I can sympathize with him and the 30-seat pub. Popularity of this sort can be less a windfall for business and more like a storm about to rip a house from its foundations.
But that doesn't explain why the deep dish at Emmett's (ranging from $16 for a two-person 8-inch pie to $28 for a "family style" 24-incher; toppings a la carte) is so bad. It does a disservice to New Yorkers who will leave just as confused as when they arrived about this curious facet of the Chicago diet, and Windy City expats will find their hunger for good deep dish left unfulfilled.
Four brutal winters in Chicago left me with an enduring love for deep dish done right. Here is how it usually works there, from the bottom up:
- Deep dish crust is stiff, more akin to British pastry dough, and often enriched with fat for tenderness, such as the super-buttery crust at local legend Lou Malnati's. It rises about two inches in height along the rim and runs about a quarter inch at the bottom.
- The cheese is a plain low-moisture mozzarella, just a little tangy and with good stretch capabilities.
- Toppings lie under the sauce, subtly mingling with and flavoring it. The most popular in Chicago is a mild garlic-fennel sausage applied in crumbles or as one continuous flat disk across the face of the pie.
- Sauce can come either smooth or thick and chunky. Light on herbs, cooked longer than New York pizza sauces but less than Sunday gravy, it hits a balance of sweetness and tang.
- The pizza is served with a sturdy trowel and then eaten with a knife and fork, as is local custom.
Chicagoan Emmett Burke's pizza recipe comes from a year and a half of tinkering, and it plays fast and loose with his hometown tradition to poor results. But as New York Magazine's review brought to light, the current chef running the kitchen never ate a slice of deep dish before taking the job. So it's unclear if the faults are by inexperience or design.
But plain good taste should recognize that Emmett's anemic crust is unnaturally thick and wooden, with all the flavor and texture of a triple-stack of Passover matzoh. By Chicago standards, the sauce is applied sparingly, and a fistful of dried oregano in it hides an otherwise plain purée lacking both tang and sweetness.
The greatest issue lies with the sausage, purchased from a store on Arthur Avenue. Finely ground as if destined for a street fair hero, outrageously salty and spicy, and cut into chunks better suited to beef stew than pizza crumbles, everything about it tasted wrong to our table, both the seasoned Chicago vets and the New York deep dish newbies. Its acrid flavor comes to dominate a pizza whose blandness stands no chance against it. That made for an awkward moment when our server shared, "this is the best sausage I've ever had," just before lifting up the pizza stand to reveal plates piled high with the discarded chunks.
We enjoyed the simple pub Cheeseburger with soggy fries more, but its sogged-up patty and general blandness make a $13 price tag hard to swallow. A Wedge Salad ($11.95 for a large, pictured) surrounds iceberg with cottony tomato and cucumber, and squiggles of treacly ranch dressing are punctuated by nubs of industrial blue cheese.
But I mean it about the drink list, surprisingly good for a pub or deep dish pizzeria; craft American beers sit alongside a $9 glass of Lambrusco and some winning Belgian gueuze. As beloved watering holes like Milady's continue to sink under Manhattan's flood of rent hikes, the need for affordable, casual spaces to eat and drink is greater than ever. For this and the general cuteness alone, I'd return to Emmett's, but not if I had to wait two hours—or even the 25 minutes that elapsed between putting my name down and an unexpected table opening.
With its current crowds, Emmett's is stuck in the weeds as servers meet diners with deer-in-headlights amazement and are generally forgetful about particulars, such the mushrooms we requested but didn't receive on our pie, or simple things like retrieving a Square-enabled iPad from my hands after I've signed it instead of wandering off to deal with other customers.
Eventually the buzz will die down and the waits will shrink, especially once the restaurant expands to lunch and breakfast service in the coming months. Perhaps then I'll return to Emmett's for a pint. As for the pizza, the search continues.