One of the country’s weightiest and most controversial topics has arrived at the fore, seizing the attention of the national political media while slicing its way into the GOP presidential primary: New York City pizza ovens.
Conservative media, and some New York City pizza purveyors, are up in arms over a proposed requirement regarding how they are to operate their coal or wood-fired pizza ovens, known in Five Boroughs pizza lore to be the source of the city’s delicious pies. The New York Post fanned the flames last week with an article which, inaccurately but explosively, alleged that climate change activists were threatening the livelihood of the city’s pizza purveyors by passing a new regulation which forced them to install pricey filters on their ovens, supposedly cutting carbon emissions at the cost of an iconic staple.
It’s almost too perfect a setup. Gritty, street smart pizza owners vs. well-intentioned but impractical NYC libs. Tradition vs. modernity. Real people vs. namby-pamby do-gooders. Even recognizing that the setup is based on a falsehood (the real regulation proposed by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection still requires a feasibility assessment for potentially installing emission controls in an effort to reduce particulate matter in the air), it’s great theater.
I’ve been hooked on this story. And so, apparently, was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
DeSantis visited New York City this week, where he shot a long segment with Fox News’ Jesse Watters at an outpost of Grimaldi’s, the venerated pizza restaurant which heralds itself as being home to a “coal brick-oven pizzeria.” It’s right there in the name: coal brick oven.
The pair chose to eat at a Grimaldi’s on 6th Ave, in Chelsea. As it happens, that Grimaldi’s is adjacent to TPM’s Manhattan global headquarters — our turf, a home pizzeria.
You can watch the segment itself here. For connoisseurs of DeSantis’ personal awkwardness, it’s classic fare; he says “let ‘er rip” twice within the space of around 30 seconds, once while inserting a pizza into the oven and next while gazing at a slice of pizza before consuming it.
The Fox News host tosses a few softball questions at DeSantis with Grimaldi’s as the backdrop, while DeSantis bemoans the proposed regulations and puts the would-be pizza gatekeepers on the couch. “They just want to control,” he says. “You have an itch on the left. They wanna control behavior. We saw the same thing with COVID, a lot of that wasn’t about your health, it was about they wanted to control your behavior. So they just don’t want people to be happy and be able to make their own decisions.”
For me, this appearance raised several critical questions: Which Grimaldi’s was this? Was it in fact subject to what, at first, seemed like an onerous set of oncoming pizza restrictions? Are the libs really trying to end pizza as we know it? An erroneous tip to TPM claimed that the DeSantis Grimaldi’s had already installed a coal emission scrubber — could that be true?
As it turned out, no. But getting to that conclusion was a journey.
What neither I nor DeSantis understood is that these questions open up an infinitely complex world of competing Grimaldis, feuds between them, private equity slicing in, Pennsylvania coal, Barstool Sports head Dave Portnoy, and New York City pizza history.
Grimaldi’s got its start in Brooklyn in 1990, when Patsy Grimaldi opened the canonical pizzeria with a coal-fired oven underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. An apocryphal story has emerged that Grimaldi chose Brooklyn, and not Manhattan, because Manhattan’s code banned coal ovens. (According to Scott Wiener, a New York City pizza historian and owner of Scott’s Pizza Tours, that’s false — it’s difficult, but not impossible, to get the city to approve new coal or wood-fired pizza ovens in any of the boroughs.)
More from Scott later.
Patsy Grimaldi sold the rights to the restaurant’s name to Frank Ciolli in 1998, a move he would later come to regret, according to a recounting of their disagreements in Eater. Ciolli set upon a voracious wave of expansion across the country. His son, Joseph, moved to Scottsdale, Arizona to establish the headquarters for a national chain version of the Brooklyn pizzeria.
By 2011, a pivotal year for Grimaldi’s and our story, the original Grimaldi’s — then owned by Ciolli — had moved down the street from its location to another Brooklyn address, and also expanded to Manhattan, opening a restaurant next to TPM’s offices, in a marketplace located within an old church. That same year, Ciolli sued to block Patsy Grimaldi from moving back into the original location, where Ciolli had recently closed a restaurant amid his own legal problems from the city related to the installation of a new coal oven.
The two have since squashed the pizza beef, and Ciolli’s Grimaldi’s chain continued to expand. In 2017, the national chain accepted $10.5 million in funding from a private equity fund, before acquiring the original, Brooklyn Grimaldi’s in 2020.
It’s a story of our times: private equity-fueled expansion, with the national Grimaldi’s chain slowly being diluted as it adopts a corporate form and spreads across the country.
Fortunately, that deal excluded the Manhattan Grimaldi’s where DeSantis dined.
I called Anthony Piscina, a co-owner of that Grimaldi’s, who appears in the DeSantis segment, who told me that his Grimaldi’s was “totally different” from the national chain.
Piscina’s Grimaldi’s runs on a coal-fired oven, with no scrubber — the appliance which New York City regulations may require restaurants to install to reduce potentially harmful particulate pollution.
“It took them four months to build the oven,” Piscina said. “The ovens, the door, the bricks are from Italy.”
Piscina brought a piece of coal to show DeSantis during his visit, and told TPM that his Grimaldi’s burns hundreds of pounds of coal each day, imported from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, to keep the stove running.
He said that he’s concerned that other, smaller pizza joints might not be able to pay to install the scrubbers, which run between $20,000 and $30,000 to install.
“The coal people keep calling me, the miners and everybody, keep calling me up to thank me for fighting for them,” said Piscina, who has been quoted in various news outlets and appeared on Fox News opposing the proposed regulations.
According to Scott Wiener, the pizza historian, the regulation itself has been completely misunderstood. It applies, he said, to all solid fuel-burning cooking ovens in the city — that includes, coal, wood, barbecues: a wider range of appliances than presented.
Ovens installed since 2016 have to install the scrubbers; those which were built before 2016 had a 2020 deadline to install them, but a moratorium was granted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both Wiener and Piscina extolled the virtues of coal-fired pizza ovens, saying that the unique combination of dryness from the coal and heat from a perfectly gauged flue size in the oven create a searingly hot environment which makes pizza crispy on the outside and smooth on the inside.
That creates emissions, which, on this scale, aren’t a climate hazard so much, Wiener said, as a threat to the locals, who might inhale the exhaust.
“They’re like, ‘it’s a lefty-liberal thing,’ but it’s not: it’s a neighbor thing,” he told TPM. “It’s not going to ruin pizza in New York.”
DeSantis continues to run with his stance on Pizza Stove Freedom. The Daily Caller reported on Thursday that his campaign was adopting the slogan used by Barstool Sports CEO and famous pizza reviewer Dave Portnoy for a T-shirt. The merchandise reads “Biden…one term. Everybody knows the rules” after Portnoy’s slogan for his one-bite pizza reviews: “One Bite, Everybody Knows the Rules!”
Portnoy didn’t return TPM’s request for comment about whether he approved of this usage.
And while it’s maybe too earnest to say that DeSantis (or the New York Post) should know better than to stoke Stove Freedom outrage over this, consider: DeSantis has spent the past several years building a political brand based on lashing out against the kind of neighborliness that some of the COVID policies demanded, that not discriminating against sexual and gender minorities entails, in favor, in a sense, of the kind of atomization which comes with spewing smoke on people without caring.
The incentive here is entrepreneurial, for politicians to wait for a conflict to appear, no matter how small or arcane, where they can dramatize the bigger stories they tell us about our society.
And yet, the story is completely untrue. The pizza does taste good though.