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Why Are Celebrities Threatening City Officials Over Coal Oven Pizza?

Elon Musk and Dave Portnoy have thoughts about the city’s proposed regulations on coal- and wood-fired ovens

A close-up of half of a pepperoni pizza, cut in pie slices.
A pepperoni pizza from Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop. Paul Giannone, the restaurant’s owner, is “glad” he installed a device that cuts down on smoke emissions.
Garrett Sweet/Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop

Over the weekend, the New York Post stoked the city’s worst fears: Officials are cracking down on old-school pizzerias, specifically those who make their pizzas in ovens powered by coal and wood, which some argue results in a superior taste and texture.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is considering regulations that would require pizzerias with older coal- and wood-fired ovens to cut their emissions by as much as 75 percent, according to the publication. In most cases, it would require operators to purchase devices that limit emissions, which can cost as much as $20,000 to install and maintain.

The proposed regulations would affect less than 100 restaurants in New York City, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection. Celebrities and conservative pundits have spoken out against the changes, which they say place a financial burden on some of the city’s oldest and most cherished pizzerias.

The regulations have been in the works for years. In 2015, City Council and former mayor Bill de Blasio passed a series of updates to the Air Pollution Control Code, a set of guidelines designed to improve the city’s air quality. Included in the changes: All wood- and coal-fired ovens installed after May 2016 need to be equipped with a device that cuts down on smoke emissions, while all existing ovens needed to be up to code by January 2020.

Enforcement of the policy was deferred due to the pandemic, which is part of the reason New Yorkers are hearing about this now. The Department of Environmental Protection is in the process of deciding when, and how, to enforce the requirements. “It’s not going to change anything besides the pizzeria’s operating budget,” Scott Wiener, a pizza historian, said in a video posted on Tuesday morning.

Not everyone agrees. The editorial board at the Post wrote that “the potential damage to New York’s food culture and overall fabric of life could be incalculable.” Dave Portnoy, the controversial figurehead of the media company Barstool Sports, appeared to threaten city officials over the regulations in a video posted on Monday: “If they come after John’s of Bleecker, I will come for their throat and I will never let go until I squeeze the life out of them.” Elon Musk called the requirements “utter BS.”

Under the proposed regulations, restaurants with coal- and wood-fired ovens would need to hire an engineer or architect to assess whether a device could be installed to reduce emissions, while non-compliance could result in fines. Restaurants can apply for a waiver from the requirement if they are able to prove a hardship, according to the current guidelines. A public hearing to discuss the regulations is scheduled for July.

“We don’t want to hurt businesses in this city and we don’t want to hurt the environment,” Mayor Eric Adams said at a press conference on Monday. He said his administration was “looking to some of the public comments” as it considers the regulations.

Several of the city’s iconic pizzerias use coal ovens, including Grimaldi’s in Dumbo, Patsy’s Pizza in East Harlem, and Lombardi’s in Nolita, said to be the country’s first pizzeria. The fuel source was at one point cheaper than wood and is less smoky, and because coal ovens are almost impossible to install due to modern building codes, they carry the romance of New York’s first pizzerias.

Over in Brooklyn at Leo, pizza chef Joey Scalabrino says he knew the restaurant would be using an electric oven that’s become more popular worldwide. “Wood-fired is amazing and it’s fast but it takes skill to keep the fire rolling to make pizza at the right temperature. Electric is literally plug and play,” he says. “And you can avoid the wood delivery and storage, though we do have a more expensive electric bill as the tradeoff.”

The operators of many coal- and wood-fired pizza joints have already updated their ovens with emissions control devices, which greatly reduce smoke and odor output. John’s of Bleecker Street, the historic coal-oven pizzeria in Greenwich Village, installed one in 2020. “We were first made aware of the law and went in compliance three years ago,” says manager Giuseppe Schirripa. The restaurant makes one of Portnoy’s highest-rated slices.

Paul Giannone, the owner of Paulie Gee’s, installed an emissions control unit at his Greenpoint restaurant prior to the pandemic. The restaurateur says he’s “glad” he installed the unit, although he thinks the city should have subsidized the installation, which cost him around $20,000. “My neighbors were being affected by it,” he said in an interview with Fox Business. “Our chimney flume is very close to a building next door.”