Thursday, July 14, 2005

Disabled staff wins over critics at pizzeria

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.07.14
EDITION: Final
SECTION: News
PAGE: A12
BYLINE: Bruce Johnston
SOURCE: The Daily Telegraph

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Disabled staff wins over critics at pizzeria: The waiters with Down syndrome have helped break down age-old prejudices, writes Bruce Johnston in Rome.

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A pizzeria employing waiters with Down syndrome has defied the critics and turned into a runaway success.

At first glance the Locanda dei Girasoli, in Rome's working class Tuscolano district, could be one of any of a number of colourful and chaotic eateries.

Apart from the better-than-average food that it serves, the only difference is that its waiters, Valerio, Claudio and Viviana, all evidently have Down syndrome. Yet until recently, the Locanda was doing anything but good business.

Residents in a city notorious for its age-old prejudices were put off by the prospect of disabled waiters.

"Early on, some people who had already sat down would get up and walk out when they saw it was a Down person who was serving," said Sergio Paladini, 53, a founder of the project. "It didn't happen every day, of course, but still it hurt."

Mr. Paladini and his wife, Agostina, became involved to give their Down son, Valerio, "a purpose in life." With seven partners, including the waiters, they formed a co-operative to run the 100-seat restaurant. None had experience in the industry.

In March, four years after opening, the co-op decided to close it because of repeated losses and the demands of holding down daytime jobs while running the restaurant at night.

The pizzeria was rescued by the left-wing city hall. Overnight it found new investors and staff in the form of committed co-operatives to ease the strain on the parents. Soon it will move into bigger premises and employ up to 20 people with Down syndrome.

A regular clientele has finally been established and, although many customers are attracted by the glowing reports of the food, the main draw is the staff. Valerio, 25, exuded a confident and cheerful air as he moved effortlessly through the tables, serving customers with aplomb.

"The Down waiters can also work in the kitchen, and turn out a cracking pizza, since they've been trained to do all this at school," said Mr. Paladini.

"But they prefer the human contact that comes with waiting on tables. When some regulars arrive, the kids greet them with a huge embrace -- something typical of people with Down syndrome.

"Not everyone can take this kind of thing, of course. But these days we have few problems with people reacting badly to being served by a disabled person. Things in Italy are finally changing.''

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