Is the smell of wood-fired pizza "obnoxious?" Il Vicino's neighbors think so
Update, 4:50 p.m.: We heard from Carol Mrzlikar, one of the neighbors upset over the smoke emitted from Il Vicino's wood-fired oven. Continue reading for her comments.
Should the smoke emitted from a wood-burning pizza oven be considered air pollution?
The neighbors of Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizza on South Gaylord Street seem to think so. On September 7, the restaurant was slapped with a citation for violating the city's odor ordinance after several neighbors complained about the smoke -- and the smell.
Il Vicino is the second business to be fined under a 2008 revision to the city's odor ordinance that that allows a citation to be issued if the Department of Environmental Health receives five smell complaints from different households within a twelve-hour period and "verifies the source of the odor." The first was Kasel Associates Industries, a pet treat factory in the hip River North neighborhood. The battle between the factory and its neighbors is the subject of this week's cover story, "Raising a Stink."
Il Vicino has its own neighborly woes. After shuttering its location at Sixth and Broadway, the restaurant opened on South Gaylord in July -- with a liquor license. But getting one "wasn't easy," owner Rick Post told us this summer. "We had four or five people who were really adamantly against us getting the license, but we also had 450 signatures from residents, along with 100 local business signatures, who were in favor," he said.
That same group of neighbors continued to harass him once the restaurant was open, Post wrote in a letter to the Department of Environmental Health appealing the citation. They questioned the city's decision to allow Il Vicino to have a patio and then complained that the patio was too noisy, he wrote. When an investigator found that it wasn't, Post wrote, the neighbors started complaining about the smoke and the odor.
"We agree that on occasion, there is a slight odor from the wood-burning fire but contend that it in no way interferes with anything," Post wrote in the letter. "We have asked our customers on many occasions whether they smell the 'odor' and the feedback generally was either they did not smell anything or it was slight and was an enjoyable smell."
The complaints tell a different story. On July 31, seven neighbors complained about the smoke. "Caller reports Il Vicino restaurant has a wood-burning stove that wafts smoke throughout the neighborhood and is very dense and may be hazardous to breathing," one complaint reads. "Caller is reporting heavy smoke smell," another says.
The complaints were enough to trigger a violation and a $150 fine. Post appealed the citation and a hearing was held on October 18. Several complainants testified, telling the hearing officer that the smoke was so strong, the neighbors couldn't open their windows in the summer. One neighbor described the burning-wood smell as "annoying" and another described it as "obnoxious." Post also testified, reiterating what he'd said in his letter.
In the end, the hearing officer upheld the citation, finding that at least five neighbors had indeed complained within a twelve-hour period. However, the officer's written conclusion states that because of Post's "attempts to remedy the situation by meeting with the inspector and exploring options to abate the smoke and odor," the $150 fine is suspended.
We reached out to Post but haven't heard back from him. We'll update this blog post if and when we do. We've also left messages for several of the neighbors who wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Park Profile in September, complaining that they felt "frustrated" and "disrespected." We'll also update this post if we hear back from them.
Update: Neighbor Carol Mrzlikar isn't happy with the outcome of Il Vicino's citation.
"I don't feel like it's been resolved at all," she says of the issue. "We still have a huge smoke problem in our neighborhood."
Mrzlikar is a longtime resident of the neighborhood. Her and her husband's home on Vine Street sits back-to-back with Il Vicino. She says she first noticed the smoke in early July. "We came home and our backyard was just full of smoke," she says. "It was just horrible. Sometimes, you could see it was black. More than anything, it smelled."
And Mrzlikar says it doesn't smell like pizza: "It smells more like grease. It's just gross."
"It affects me physically," she adds. "I have allergies. It makes my allergies a lot worse. My eyes are always bloodshot. It was so bad last summer that a lot of times, I couldn't enjoy my backyard. I told my husband, 'I feel like a prisoner in my own home.'"
Mrzlikar says she frequently calls 311 to complain but says the city odor inspectors don't even call back anymore. "Calling the city is getting us nowhere," she says.
Though Mrzlikar opposed Il Vicino's application for a liquor license, she says she has no issues with the restaurant's patio -- or its owner. "I'm not looking for a fight," she says. "I would love to get along with this establishment. It's a very quiet business and it does cater to families. ... I just want him to take care of the smoke."
The smoke is so bothersome, she says she and her husband have considered selling their home. But they've decided to wait until to spring to see if things improve. Since the citation was issued, however, she says nothing has changed. "I feel like some of my rights have been taken away from me that any American citizen should enjoy," she says. "I think there's got to be something that can be done. I just don't know what."
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