Interview with Nico Acampora, founder of PizzAut, the pizzeria that nourishes disabilities and tries to transform the world into a better place

In Italy there are 600 thousand people affected by autism whose cognitive-relational disability, if we imagine them within a family unit, involves approximately 1 million and 8 hundred thousand people.

Istat data reveal that in Italy one autistic child is born every 77.

“The State allocates little or nothing for each of them and families go into debt to pay for treatment for their children,” says Nico Acampora, founder of PizzAut. Reached by phone to tell us about his 'new restaurant' format that combines autism and good food. And to understand together where Italian companies are at with true inclusion.

“We're not in great shape. In Italy companies should hire 1 disabled person in 15 and, incredibly: many would rather pay the fine. And if they do fulfill their legal duties, 30% choose people with physical disabilities and less than 2% with autism."

It is the other side of 'diversity & inclusion': "There is a guy who works with us who has a CV of 16 years of unpaid internships in different companies behind him. And they call it a socializing internship."

We all talk and write about it, but then the numbers provide a glimpse of disheartening reality.

“When we started with the PizzAut project, there was little talk about autism,” continues Acampora.

He who Elio from Elio e le Storie Tese often invites onto his stage to lift the veil of indifference and involve the public in their common story as fathers of autistic children. Because autism is a disability that families learn to manage almost by word of mouth, "many are forced to go into debt to be able to guarantee their children a normal quality of life".

Therefore, rather than inclusion, we should talk about basic rights: "There are autistic children who can only enter school at 10.30, because there is a lack of educators. What about working parents? It is not just a question of inconvenience for both, but of violation of a constitutional right: to educate oneself."

And it is certainly also to draw attention to what is in all respects a violation that the President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella inaugurated the second PizzAut headquarters in Monza.

The History of PizzAut, the project that links autism and catering

Born at the end of 2017, PizzAut is a project that links autism and catering: "I wrote it on a dark and stormy night", jokes Nico Acampora. “To my wife, the fact that I was getting into the restaurant business seemed pretty outlandish.”

But the creative lever is the love for son Leo, not yet of age.

“Anyway, I can't convince her right then and there,' he goes back to sleep,' he tells me.” Then in the following days I perfected the idea and with a group of kids (whose families responded to my social media announcement looking for aspiring pizza chefs and dining room staff) we started going into restaurants in the Monza and Milan hinterlands to 'get familiar' . At the time we didn't yet have our own restaurant."

Hence the idea of 'a taste of PizzAut', a traveling format that trains aspiring pizza chefs and helps me understand the critical issues for an autistic boy placed in a context professional — and them — to live their lives to the full”.

But while they were in full swing, the pandemic broke out and with the pandemic the restaurants were the first to close. “That's when I invented PizzAut-bus, and I brought pizza, pizza chef and pizzeria to the courtyards of condominiums. Let's go back to work, Covid gives us some respite and on May 1st 2021 we will open the first restaurant in Cassina De' Pecchi".

Built from scratch together with Officine Mac, in the former Enel and GTE area, thanks to the crowdfunding campaign in which mainly private citizens participated, "today we have 800 available m2 divided between indoor and outdoor spaces, for around 200 seats and 14 employees. And to me it all seems beautiful.”

But inaugurating the Cassina De' Pecchi point was a challenge.

I remember all the comments and sooner or later I will make a book. From 'Acampora you are more handicapped than your boys if you think you can do it' to 'you make disabled people work who still get your pension'.

Comments from ordinary people which are echoed by the psychiatric assessments of self-styled professionals: 'Acampora, you are the usual frustrated father, you don't give in to your son's disability and invents unrealizable projects that give false hope to other families.'

Acampora relaunches and sets up two 'living autonomy gyms', spaces independent of the venue in which she 'gets used' to kids to be self-sufficient, to take care of the space and of themselves. To then return them to the world to which they are entitled.

The vision of PizzAut

“From 2021 to today it seems to me that the attitude has changed: you can see it from the indexing of the word autism on the web”, which given the comments we cannot understand how much empathy they resonate, what is certain is that there it's a desire to understand. “Until a few years ago, autism was only talked about on December 3, World Disability Day”. The one in 2023 will be special: "some of our partner companies will hire an autistic person who has worked with us". And she will be a real joy for everyone.

But let's get back to the story. It is in 2023, in Monza, that the second PizzAut takes shape in an area abandoned by Philips, employing 20 young people: "1200 m2 with 320 seats which we have redeveloped thanks also to fundraising aimed at companies" .

It is at the entrance to the venue that the 'Brick Wall' is located: "where by bricks I mean the great madmen, that is, all those companies that believe in our project. From large groups to small businesses more closely linked to the territory.

There are Danone and Xerox, Bosch and Molteni, but also 0039 which has all PizzAut furnishings were designed and built to measure. And it all seems beautiful to me."

Except that the year they bake the first panettone to sell to raise funds, "they steal them from the warehouse. But it is thanks to Boffi, who bought them all (the stolen ones) to allow us to continue with our business." Italian companies therefore adhere to crowdfunding with vigor, "perhaps the world of fashion is not very engaged, not very inclined towards disabilities, which ultimately are not beautiful".

Nino Acampora is not discouraged, and continues with the realization of his project because he wants to live as best as possible today with his son.

"We always inaugurate the offices on May 1st, because it is Labor Day and we like to underline the status of our kids: the fact that they are workers and that they bring competence and not disability".

How to plan for inclusion

Both locations are beautiful, simple, welcoming places: large rooms, homogeneous lighting and not excessive use of color are needed. “The kitchens are particularly large”, in Monza it is around 220 m2. The kids work there comfortably: the air extraction system is silent and powerful to avoid annoying olfactory stimuli. “We have invested around 200 thousand euros in soundproofing because noise can also be a disturbing element”.

Bringing autism into catering therefore means on the one hand reorganizing the work process and on the other studying a customized furnishing system.

So we don't cook in traditional ovens, but in tunnel ovens in which we insert the pizza certain that after three minutes and forty seconds it comes out nice and crispy on the other side. In our tables, then, we never sit at the head of the table: one side must always be free because it is the one from which the kids take orders and serve.

A red line runs along the top, on which the waiters in the dining room, when they are still learning, place dishes and supplies: a comfort area that brings the kids closer to the table first. As they learn to relate to people, they cross the red line to approach them without fear.

And then all the tables have screwable numbers, because it is the floors that migrate, not the positions", concludes Nino Acampora. And I would like to continue for another 8000 characters. But I prefer to go to dinner with them.

From all the pizza chefs who are autistic, all the waiters who are autistic, all the barmen who are autistic: autism is not a disability to be feared, knowing it is a way to improve yourself and plan better. Which is the true mission of man and design.