Woke bureaucrats want to destroy the last of New York City’s beloved coal- and wood-fired pizzerias in a crazed climate crusade.
That’s the lie fueling the latest rightwing outrage cycle, in a distorted account of a commonsense air quality rule passed in New York City seven years ago. In reality, the rule, which soon takes effect, requires a handful of pizzerias to reduce the exhaust fumes that could harm neighbors, using a small air filter like those required at other New York City restaurants, which have been used by pizza shops in Italy for decades.
But conservative attention-seekers seem determined to make this another kind of “Pizzagate”.
“Some fucking little liberal arts, Ivy-League, pink-haired, crazy liberal who’s never worked one day in the real world is trying to get rid of coal oven pizzerias in New York City,” seethed Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports.
“This is utter bs. It won’t make a difference to climate change,” wrote Elon Musk on Twitter. (New York’s rule doesn’t actually mention climate change.)
And a pro-Trump activist, Scott LoBaido, unleashed an in-person tirade against “woke” lawmakers at New York’s city hall, throwing slices of pizza over the gate. (Mayor Eric Adams, a vegan, responded that LoBaido “needs to bring a vegan pie to me so we can sit down and I want to hear his side of this”.)
For actual New York City pizza lovers, it’s a spectacle without basis in reality. “This is not legislation that will corrode the New York pizza scene,” says Scott Wiener, a leading New York City pizza expert and historian, but some people “are so resistant to facts”.
The pizza pile-on was sparked by a inaccuracy-riddled report published over the weekend by the New York Post, which claimed that the city’s department of environmental protection was “targeting” coal- and wood-fired pizza restaurants by forcing them to install expensive emission control devices to reduce their “carbon emissions” by up to 75%.
The report also quoted an unnamed restaurateur who complained the air filters would be “ruining the taste of the pizza” and “totally destroying the product”.
The Post’s story was highly misleading. The rule doesn’t target only pizza restaurants, but was passed in 2016 as part of an update to the city’s air pollution control code that applied to all commercial kitchens in the city. It doesn’t ask restaurants to cut carbon emissions or fight the climate crisis, but to reduce particulate matter – the tiny particles that can cause serious health problems if inhaled, including bronchitis, asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
What’s being asked of traditional oven pizza restaurants is simple: install a type of air filter in their chimneys to keep their cancer-causing dust from blowing into their neighbors’ homes. The city originally asked kitchens to do this by 2020, then postponed the plan until this year due to the pandemic. But many restaurants had already made the changes, some of them years before the rule was even drafted.
The actual impact has been minimal, says Wiener. “Pizzerias have mostly already adapted, and most pizzerias that need them have already installed them, and nobody has noticed. This is something that is not going to make or break a pizzeria.”
But outside of New York City, conservatives have portrayed the move as a total pizzapocalypse. The far-right media personality Benny Johnson declared on his YouTube show that “New York has canceled pizza”, adding: “You’re no longer allowed to eat pizza.” And the Colorado GOP congresswoman Lauren Boebert claimed incorrectly on Twitter that “the majority of NYC’s world-famous pizza joints utilize decades-old brick ovens, and will be directly affected by this”.
In reality, coal- and wood-fired pizzas are just two of the many kinds of pizzas that New York City is known for. Coal and wood fires can bake pizzas very quickly at high temperatures, which creates a crispy exterior and a soft interior – “a dual texture that makes this pizza different from other styles”, says Wiener. But coal and wood fires don’t work well for thicker styles – like Sicilian pizza – that are also popular in New York.
If anything, the air cleaners may be what allows these traditional ovens to keep operating.
Roberto Caporuscio, an internationally recognized pizza chef raised in Italy, who now runs Kesté, a high-end wood-fired pizzeria in lower Manhattan, believes he was the first in New York City to install an air cleaner, back in 2009. Before, “everybody complained all the time” about his chimney fumes, he says, sending a regular stream of health inspectors through his doors. But as soon as he put in the air cleaner, there was “no more problem”, he says. “It’s a really incredible machine.”
Paulie Gee, the owner of an eponymous pizzeria in Brooklyn, installed the same machine in 2020, and also noticed it made his neighbors much happier. “I don’t want to seem like this greedy person that’s willing to put all the smoke in somebody’s apartment so I can make pizza,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself any more, If I knew that they were continuing to have problems.”
The machine itself is a roughly four-by-three-foot metal box, sold as the Smoke Zapper 300 by a small family business called Smoki USA, which imports it from Italy, where it was invented nearly three decades ago. The Smoki CEO, Peter de Jong, says he’s baffled by the backlash. “Literally thousands of these units are installed in Italy. You actually can’t have a wood-fired oven in most towns without installing one of these units,” he says.
The way it works “was designed to not be an onerous requirement for a pizzeria”, explains De Jong’s son Connor, Smoki’s technical development executive. The device sits near the chimney opening, intercepting the pizza oven’s exhaust. The Zapper is technically a “wet scrubber”, which means it forces smoke through high pressure water nozzles. Particulate matter “gloms on to” the aerosolized water and then drops into a water tank which is drained away, Connor explains. What’s left is clean, cooled-down vapor that is released into the atmosphere.
In addition to happier neighbors, the Smoke Zapper produces another benefit: a remarkably steady airflow through the chimney. A coal- or wood-fired oven requires a draft through the chimney to feed the flame, tricky even for pro chefs to get just right. But the Smoke Zapper pulls in air at a constant 300 to 400 cubic feet per minute – considered ideal for baking pizza, the De Jongs say. The chefs agree: “The water inside creates a more natural flow,” says Caprocuscio. “It’s better,” says Paulie Gee. “You’re guaranteed a draft.”
The main issue is cost – and at around $20,000 including installation, a Smoke Zapper 300 isn’t cheap. But they’re still smaller and more affordable than the air cleaners in many other commercial kitchens, which use pricey electrostatic filters. And it’s better than having to close. “We’ve helped restaurants all over the country that were going to be shut down because of neighborhood complaints,” says Connor. “They installed our unit, and they stay in business.”
Gee thinks the city could do more to subsidize the cost of the units – and final negotiations between restaurants and the department of environmental protection are reportedly ongoing. Mayor Adams struck a moderate tone on Monday: “We don’t want to hurt businesses in the city and we don’t want to hurt the environment. So let’s see if we can find a way to get the resolutions we’re looking for.” But Wiener has a blunter take on why there’s been backlash against the units at all: “The only people you will hear say anything negative about it are the ones who haven’t complied and don’t want to spend 10 to 20 grand.” (The city’s environmental agency did not immediately return a request for comment.)
That still leaves the biggest question. Could the air filters affect the pizza’s taste?
Every expert and chef I spoke to for this story concurred: there was simply no way an air cleaner at the end of an oven’s exhaust system could affect the taste of a pizza. It’s an “absurd concept”, says Connor. “That’s like saying you can taste in your spaghetti what brand is the kitchen fan on the end of the stack. It just makes no sense.”
More than that, it’s a common misconception that the coal or wood ever adds flavor to the pizza. “If you’re eating pizza inside a wood-fired pizzeria, the flavor that you’re getting from the fire is through your nose – you’re smelling the fire,” Wiener says. “If you take that same pizza outside, you are not going to taste the wood because this is a 60-second bake. Unlike barbecue, which is an eight-to-12-hour cook, slow and low in the smoke.”
Still, I had to see for myself. I walked to my neighborhood wood-fired pizzeria, the kind that’s supposedly been “canceled”. The air outside was clean, and the shop was filled with happy customers. My pie came out, as it always has, with a handsome char on the outside. I looked around to double check for any leftist officials watching me (there were none) before taking a bite. This may come as a shock – but it was still pizza, and delicious.