Coal on ice! City wants to raise price of coal-oven pizza

Coal on ice! City wants to raise price of coal-oven pizza
Photo by Jason Speakman

Big government is going after little pizza.

A new law backed by Mayor DeBlasio that demands some of Brooklyn’s most popular old-school pizzerias upgrade their coal-burning ovens with $10,000 air filters has borough pizzaiolos heated.

“We’ve been here 90 years,” said Louise Ciminieri, co-owner of Totonno’s in Coney Island, the borough’s oldest parlor. “We didn’t kill anybody yet.”

The legislation, introduced by Queens Councilman Donovan Richards, aims to cut down on air pollution by requiring all non-gas ovens, including coal and wood-burners, to install the pricey emission-control gadgets by 2020. And the law contains no grandfather clause, meaning existing ovens would not be exempt, though they would qualify for deadline extensions. A city environmental honcho told the Council the move would save city residents’ lives while preserving its gastronomical heritage.

“This will ultimately reduce localized residential exposure to particulate matter generated by wood- and coal-burning ovens while still allowing the food service industry to cook all the foods that New Yorkers love,” said commissioner Emily Lloyd.

But restaurant industry advocates say solid-fuel ovens only kick up a tiny amount of carbon and that the city should change the rules so as not to punish Brooklyn’s pie-slinging stalwarts, including the world-famous Grimaldi’s in Dumbo, for their longevity.

“These are minor polluters,” said Rob Bookman, counsel for the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a trade group, questioning why the city cannot give the long-timers more rope. “Why not do it over time and phase out the old stuff?”

Ten grand is the minimum for the filtration gear, according to an executive for Wood Stone, a Washington-based oven manufacturer that makes it. The outfit installed the coal oven at the new coal-fired Table 87 location on Third Avenue in Gowanus and the Wood Stone rep said he has not heard of cities requiring the device — and that it might not be necessary.

“We have not run into regulations that require emission control,” Eaton said. “Part of the reason is that when coal is burning with full combustion it burns rather clean.”

The coal does not burn clean enough for Mayor DeBlasio, who in a statement acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the rule and said it would help city residents who have respiratory problems.

“This city has a legacy of leading the nation when it comes to protecting the health and safety of our environment,” DeBlasio said. “[The] reforms — the biggest in a generation — will make a fundamental difference for thousands of New Yorkers living with asthma and pave the way for other cities around the nation to follow suit.”

The ovens already cost around $35,000 plus installation costs, which can be considerable in buildings with complicated ventilation needs. The pizza purveyors we talked to said the new rules are just another way for the city to squeeze small businesses.

“New York is a big numbers game,” said Grimaldi’s. “These ovens don’t emit much pollution at all. There’s worse pollution if you just stand under the Brooklyn Bridge.”

If the new law does pass, owners said they would have no choice but to make the investment.

“I want to bring people coal oven pizza by the slice,” said Thomas Cucco, who owns Table 87 and claims his are the only coal pizzerias in the city that are not pie-only.

“If that’s what it takes, we’ll do it,” he said about installing the pricey piece.

The bill also calls for banning the construction of new residential fireplaces after July 1 and retrofitting charbroilers with filtration devices.

Brooklyn pizza parlors first started opening in former bakeries, many of which contained coal ovens, in the early 1900s. But as cheaper alternative fuels became popular, many of the black-gold-powered ovens went cold. The fact that there are so few left in operation is part of the reason many people believe new ones to be illegal, according to a borough pizza expert.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about coal-fired ovens,” said Scott Wiener, who runs tours of pizza parlors and gave a lecture about the staple last month at the Brooklyn Historical Society. “The fact is there’s really no laws saying you can’t have one.”

It’s not the first time Mayor DeBalsio has been involved in a pizza-fed controversy.

The mayor was spotted eating the delicious cheese, sauce, and bread concoction that is designed to be devoured by hand with a knife and fork at a Staten Island restaurant in January.

DeBlasio defended his eating style on the Rock using the “When in Rome” defense, claiming that was how it was eaten in Italy.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
It’s all in the oven: Pizza lovers have long believed in the coal oven pizza, which burns hotter than regular ovens and causes a charing on the crust.
Photo by Jason Speakman