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Tribune Critic Uses Social Media to Rip Northwest Side Pizzeria’s Mask Compliance

The post ignited a debate over “politics” in food criticism

A waitress with a mask dropping off pizza to a table of four.
Restaurants have had to make sure they abide by mask mandates, as this stock photo shows.

When Tribune co-dining critic Nick Kindelsperger visited Pizzaboy, an Edison Park pizzeria on Thursday, he noticed that none of the employees seemed to be wearing masks. He crossposted this observation on Facebook and Instagram:

I’ve never done this, but I can’t recommend even visiting @pizzaboychicago. I’ve eaten at places all around the city over the past year, and none have shown such disregard for public health during a pandemic. No one was wearing a mask. Not the cashier, the workers in the kitchen or the owner @pizzaboycb. There wasn’t even a half hearted attempt. It seems like they are going out of their way not to comply. There’s no sign on the door about customers wearing masks, though a few like me did.

The current mandate in Chicago is that everyone in public indoor spaces must wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, unless they’re eating or drinking. Restaurants often get warnings from inspectors but also face fines of $75 to $2,500 per violation.

The difference between Kindelsperger and most other people who post observations about restaurants on social media is that Kindelsperger is a dining critic for a major newspaper and even when he posts on his personal social media account, his words carry weight. Kindelsperger’s post has a similar energy to a review Soleil Ho wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week that took In-N-Out to task for not enforcing San Francisco’s policy of asking diners to show proof of vaccination. Ho’s criticism, however, appeared on the Chronicle website, not her own personal social media.

Within hours after Kindelsperger posted, Pizzaboy was inundated with phone calls, says owner Carlo Bertolli, and they were not congratulatory. Masks were off when Kindelsperger came in, Bertolli says, because he and his staff were eating.

“How are you supposed to eat with a mask? I didn’t know he was here. If he had said something, I would have talked to him...,” he says. “[The post] was dumb and unprofessional. Being a food critic is being a food critic. A political food critic, there’s no room for this in this business.”

This was a sentiment echoed by a few commenters on Kindelsperger’s Facebook post. “Perhaps, not my place to post this, but I’m afraid the days of removing politics from, um, everything — food, fashion, film, books, etc. — are over...” wrote Lisa Shames, an occasional Eater Chicago contributor and former dining editor who also works in marketing for Bonhomme Hospitality (Beatnik, Porto).

John Badal, the chef and owner of North Branch Fried Chicken in nearby Jefferson Park, defended Pizzaboy and commented: “His food is great and he is passionate about his craft. Politics aside, can we please focus on the pizza.”

Others, including Big Jones chef Paul Fehribach, argued that masking is not a political issue, and that going unmasked during a pandemic is a public health violation that puts diners at risk, just like dirty kitchens and mouse droppings on the floor. TV personality and Chicago pizza expert Steve Dolinsky also threw salt in Pizzaboy’s wounds in a since-deleted comment writing the pizza wasn’t even good. All comments were deleted from Kindelsperger’s Instagram post by Friday.

Kindelsperger, for his part, writes in an email to Eater Chicago that he had never seen such a flagrant disregard for the mask mandate, and he eats out every day.

“I truly don’t see my role as the mask police,” he writes. “I’ve seen my fair share of noses and chins, not to mention the occasional maskless face, but I believe most places are trying the best that they can. This is an extremely stressful time, and restaurateurs have been required to enforce this mandate even if it frustrates their customers. I really do hope that this was an isolated event, and that I just caught the kitchen at the worst possible time.”

Kindelsperger’s post is a departure from how his predecessor conducted himself. Phil Vettel took a buyout from the Tribune in January after 31 years as critic. At a September retirement dinner, restaurateurs praised Vettel for his accuracy and for rarely venturing beyond discussion of restaurant-related matters, like food, service, and design. The new generation of critics, though, have made a point of using restaurants as a prism to examine social and political issues.

The Pizzaboy episode also raises the question of how a critic should be using social media. It’s common practice for journalists at legacy media outlets, especially critics, to run potentially controversial social media posts relevant to their beats past editors. Kindelsperger mostly uses his personal accounts to share reviews and stories and sometimes photos of food he’s eaten that he finds extraordinarily good. His Facebook and Instagram dispatches from restaurants, until his visit to Pizzaboy, were always positive. As he himself pointed out, the Pizzaboy post was unprecedented. But, as Bertolli points out, should a critic be obligated to talk to the restaurant owner before posting an offhanded comment on social media, the same way he might if he were writing a review for publication?