Move Over, Cauliflower Crust: the Charcoal Pizza Has Arrived

Photo: Michael Tulipan
Long gone are the days when your pizza options were limited to thin or thick crust. Last year, the cauliflower craze made no-carb pies a reality. And now there's a new attempt at health-ifying the comfort food fave: the activated charcoal pizza.

Yes, the same ingredient that gives Dirty Lemon its reputed detoxifying kick (and is used in everything from face masks to teeth whiteners) is now available by the slice—in New Jersey.

Salvatore Olivella, a Naples-born pizza maker and owner of Olivella Restaurant in North Bergen, NJ, has spent the past six months tinkering with charcoal-infused recipes, which he says he first observed back in Italy. "The charcoal crust is very big in Italy right now," he says. Now, he says his recipes are finally ready, and he's giving his restaurant's pizza, pasta, and mozzarella cheese the blackened treatment.

If I'd been blindfolded, I would've thought it was just a regular (albeit delicious) pizza crust.

According to Olivella, "Activated charcoal has been used to treat poisonings for years, but only recently has it been added to food, drinks, and cosmetics. It is reputed to aid digestion, reduce gas and bloating, and absorb toxins in the body."

But is a charcoal-infused pizza crust more nutritious? Maybe not, says Kelly Hogan, RD, CDN, clinical nutrition and wellness manager at the Dubin Breast Center at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital.

"Activated charcoal is used in the emergency treatment for certain kinds of poisoning by preventing poisons from being absorbed in the body," Hogan says. "It can also bind with vitamins, supplements, and medications, inhibiting their absorption, and can actually be detrimental to health if used in the long or short term, depending on what your medications are prescribed for. And it can bind with nutrients from foods and inhibit absorption, which can cause nutrient deficiencies over the long term."

Basically, Hogan says these pies aren't any healthier than the old-fashioned kind—and added that in some cases, activated charcoal can also cause diarrhea and GI distress. (Yikes.)

Still, I headed to North Bergen to meet with Olivella and give his new charcoal crust pizza a taste test—all in the name of research. So, is black the new black?

Well, if I'd been blindfolded, I would've thought it was just a regular (albeit delicious) crust. (Charcoal or not, Olivella's pizzas are good.) It certainly looks more dramatic than a standard thin-crust pie, and I almost expected it to taste burnt on account of its dark gray color. (It didn't. At all.)

I asked Olivella about the cooking process, which he said is the same as cooking one of his pies with a regular crust. But how does he know when it's done cooking, since you can't really gauge the crust's change in color? "You have to know what you're doing," he insists. The charcoal crust is available as an option for any of Olivella's 16 types of pizzas. (I tried the Snow White and the Inferno. So much for that dairy-free streak I had going...)

As for why he's bringing charcoal crusts (and pastas and mozzarella) to the US? "People in the US think of pizza as fast food," he told me. "Now, pizza is healthy."

It's a bold claim, and while it may not be completely RD-approved, it hit the spot when I wanted to satisfy my pizza craving.

If you're on a comfort-food kick, pizza isn't the only option: Here are 4 super-healthy ways to get your fix and some delish recipes that won't derail your detox

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