My Recipe for Victory

As Nicola Pietoso’s Buddhist practice flourishes, so do his family and business.

Flourishing life— Nicola Pietoso at one of his restaurants, located in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. Photo: Jennifer Koehler.

by Nicola Pietoso

Mr. Pietoso spends a casual afternoon with his son Christian and granddaughters Ilaria (left) and Valentina.
Mr. Pietoso spends a casual afternoon with his son Christian and granddaughters Ilaria (left) and Valentina.

I was 3 years old when my mother dropped me off at an orphanage. It was the late 1950s in Naples, which at the time was a very poor region of Italy. My father had been hospitalized, and with three other children to raise, my mother couldn’t afford to take care of me. Sending me to the orphanage was the only way to ensure I would get food, shelter and an education.

My mother visited me every summer and holiday. I would spend two to three weeks with her before I was sent again to the orphanage. Each time we parted, deep feelings of abandonment and hurt would resurface. The pain was devastating.

I began attending culinary school in Florence when I was 15 and left the orphanage at 18 to attend school full time. I enjoyed learning to cook, serve and bartend, and I was told I was good at it. After four years of study, I started working at hotels and restaurants in Tuscany, eventually purchasing a snack and coffee bar.

Though my career was taking off, I struggled to trust others, particularly women. I had no example of a healthy relationship. When I was 19, I married a nice woman, and we had a child together, but it ended in separation after just nine months.

I was in my late 20s when a former girlfriend introduced me to SGI Nichiren Buddhism. She often pointed out to me how I closed myself off to other people. She was convinced that Buddhism could help me.

At my first meetings, I acted belligerently, criticizing everything I heard. Despite my behavior, the members were very warm, particularly my district and group leaders. I returned for that reason and found that I liked these gatherings. As I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, I began to feel relief from my deep pain.

It shocked me. I thought I could only be happy if I met a wonderful partner, had a successful business or owned a house. With my new Buddhist practice, my happiness seemed to come from the inside.

I soon learned that my mother had suffered a debilitating stroke. I chanted by her side, and I got her to chant as well. She began to recover and was eventually moved to a longterm care facility.

Chanting every day made me feel like a new Nicola.

Much of the resentment I had held on to since childhood seemed to dissipate as I fought to support my mother. Instead of losing to my pain, I could now stand as a pillar of my family. I began to gain confidence that I could unite and support a family of my own.

In 1990, after selling a successful produce business, I decided to visit two of my brothers who had moved to St. Louis and started a restaurant. In America, I began pondering what to do with my life. I wanted to reconnect with my brothers and create a deep bond with them by working together at their restaurant.

I returned to Italy and sought guidance about my situation from my district leader. I complained to him that it would be very difficult to obtain the right visa to move to America. He told me not to let anything hold me back. If I wanted to move to America, I should just make up my mind and do it.

I moved and began working with my brothers. I also started to attend SGI meetings in St. Louis and became a group leader. I was soon introduced to an amazing fellow SGI member, Maureen. I realized quickly that she was the right person for me, and we were married within five weeks. I moved in with her and her three wonderful children.

In 1993, I decided to open my own restaurant. Though it did not do well, I was able to sell it and break even. In 1995, I moved to Cincinnati to open a new restaurant, Nicola’s. This time, the restaurant was a success, and I opened one more in 1999. Five years later, my first son came to work with me as a chef at my restaurant, as I continued to live my vow to be the pillar of my family.

Though I was happy with our success, running these restaurants was no easy task. I worked 16 hours a day while trying to support my children’s busy lives. As a result, I could not attend SGI activities or find the time to chant. My mood fluctuated based on what happened that day, good or bad. Over time, I became more and more miserable. I became so dark, in fact, that my wife and I separated for one year in 2009. At rock bottom, I knew I could only persevere by returning to my Buddhist practice.

On Sept. 9, 2009, I started chanting consistently again. I renewed my vow to become someone who could support a happy family. Chanting every day made me feel like a new Nicola. Seeing this change, my wife reunited with me.

Despite the economic crisis, my businesses did better than ever. I was even able to expand my restaurant. I now have time to spend many Sundays with my children and grandchildren. I also serve on the board of a nonprofit organization that supports disadvantaged children.

Growing up in an orphanage, I could have never imagined creating the beautiful family I have now. Persevering in my Buddhist practice turned out to be my recipe for victory.