By Alexandra Mortati, Women In Pizza

Nadia Minniti, a food historian and the owner of Gusto Napoletano in Fayetteville, North Carolina, came to the U.S. by virtue of having married a U.S. Marine in her native Italy. Perhaps that’s why she takes her pizza making so seriously.

“The purity of pizza escapes most people,” Nadia said. “When I make pizza, I have history in my hands.”

In October 1993, Nadia’s spouse was transferred to the U.S., so Nadia moved along with them. It was her first-ever trip to the U.S.

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“When I arrived here, I saw that there were no jobs available for immigrants with a thick accent,” Nadia recalled. “The only jobs I was offered were as a maid cleaning hotel rooms or a fast-food worker.”

That bias was rather jarring to Nadia, someone who had a college degree and happened to speak five different languages: English, Italian, Spanish, French and her native Neapolitan dialect. Luckily, Nadia found community within her military family.

“I had volunteered in Naples to be a chaperone for GI’s and DOD personnel,” Nadia said. “I would show them where to eat and go. All my time hanging around the military helped me feel like I had a safety net because I was able to get a glimpse of what life was about in America.”

Still, Nadia dealt with serious culture shock coming to the U.S. Even though she’s been in America for 30 years now, there are still parts she hasn’t grown accustomed to.

“It’s the funniest thing,” Nadia said. “In Italy, you dress up. You don’t wear flip flops or sweatpants unless you’re at the gym. I used to dress [up] to go to the grocery store or commissary and people thought I was an officer’s wife because I was so dressed up. If you don’t take pride in yourself, you aren’t going to take pride in the work that you do. All of this reflects on the restaurant.”

Nadia’s foray into the professional culinary world was all due to happenstance. She met the wife of the Commanding General of Camp Lejeune, who happened to love Italy. The wife invited Nadia to partake in the Foreign Wives Club potlucks. Naturally, Nadia began cooking her authentic Italian food for those events. The Commanding General’s wife knew talent when she saw it—she asked Nadia if she had any interest in cooking for them as a personal chef.

“I would also cook for single Lieutenants and Captains and leave before their date arrived,” Nadia recalled. “I always said, ‘If you really like this girl, sooner or later she is going to find out you can’t cook.’”

Nadia’s professional career hasn’t been without obstacles. Believe it or not, there were times where she was accused of working too hard. This ultimately led her to want to be her own boss, something she accomplished when she opened Gusto Napoletano in September 2019.

“At every job I’ve had here, I’ve been told to stop being so efficient and so good at what I do because I make other people look bad,” Nadia said. “I opened Gusto Napoletana after I was forced out of my culinary arts job where I was an instructor for 13 years. I had a narcissistic supervisor in an education system that frowns on women who are smart go-getters.”

Courtesy of Nadia Manniti

Ultimately, those obstacles only made Nadia work harder—and go back to her roots. When she realized there was no future for her at the job she held in the culinary arts, she decided to tap into her Neapolitan roots.

“I’m a food historian and culinary arts instructor, meaning I know the technique, history, sociology, and psychology of food,” Nadia said. “I thought, ‘What can I do to better my knowledge of what Neapolitan food is?’ and I found myself at the VPN Americas in Inglewood, CA. Peppe Miele and I clicked immediately (we are both from neighboring neighborhoods in Naples, Italy), and he has supported me in ways I could have never imagined.”

As a food historian, Nadia spends a lot of time thinking about why people eat what they eat. Why are certain foods popular in certain areas? Nadia knew she wanted to further her education, but the only gastronomy program she could identify was offered by Boston University. Instead, she found something that was a little closer to home.

“I went to NC State and asked if I could do an independent study and find seminars and classes that mimicked the ones in Boston,” Nadia said. “One of my studies was on the history of Neapolitan cuisine. I went back to Italy for five weeks and studied at national libraries and interviewed other food historians. One day, when I have a little bit of time, I will write a history recipe book on Naples. Naples is the food capital of Europe—we have all cultures embedded in ours: the Spanish, Moors, Greeks, et cetera.”

Once Nadia opened her own restaurant, she still faced challenges. As a female business owner, she has identified times when she dealt with discrimination.

“When you hire contractors in North Carolina and you are a woman, they will take advantage of you,” Nadia said. “It took almost a year to finish [a] job because the contractor would only work 2-3 hours a day because he had other jobs. Meanwhile, I’m paying rent and utilities.”

For Nadia, she has found that she reaps what she sows. For example, it was the loyalty of her students that helped her get up and running. “I was lucky that a lot of my culinary students liked and respected me,” Nadia said. “My first employees were my students. Other pizza venue owners weren’t too happy to see me open. The world of pizza is a male-dominated one, and we are impinging on their success and manhood.”

She’s persevered through other challenges, too. For example, it is common for her to work 80 hours a week despite being 57.

“It’s hard to be on your feet 12 hours a day, but I keep at it,” Nadia said. “I hope that I can get enough employees so that I can focus on growing the business. I want to focus on the cookbook I’ve always wanted to do. After 3.5 years, people are finally realizing I’m here to stay. We use top-of-the-line ingredients and make everything from scratch—from bread to cheesecakes. I can’t just hire anyone that calls themselves a cook because people recognize that we offer quality food. I’m considering having a company make my signature sauce so I can jar it and sell it in grocery stores.”

Ever the scholar, Nadia will tell any woman looking to break into the business to make sure to do your own research and not be afraid to call a spade a spade.

“Read, read, read,” Nadia said. “Ask questions. And be prepared to be called the ‘B’ word behind your back. You have to take responsibility for what you are setting yourself to do. No one else can do it for you. If you fail, it’s your fault, and you must be honest with yourself. Learn from your mistakes, and change. Nobody else can read your mind or see your vision. You have to put your skin in the game. A lot of people go into business without a good financial situation. I am debt free. I own everything square and clear.”

Even after doing her own research, Nadia was still criticized by some in Fayetteville, which isn’t exactly known as a foodie destination (though Nadia is determined to change all that). The biggest misconception a lot of Americans have, Nadia said, is that Italian food should be the Americanized version they’ve grown accustomed to.

“There’s no such thing in Italy as Italian food—it’s all regional cuisine,” Nadia said. “There’s no chicken piccata, no Alfredo sauce, no spaghetti and meatballs. When I say, ‘that isn’t Italian, you’re not going to find it here,’ they say, ‘we’re going somewhere else.’ Pepperoni isn’t Italian—it was invented in New York City at the start of the 19th century. I had a lady refer to me as a terrorist once. She said, “This is America,’ and I said, ‘OK, this is an Italian restaurant.’ The word pepperoni means bell pepper!” Nadia tries not to let the negativity get to her. “I put a sign in the window that says, ‘pepperoni is not Italian,’ and now people laugh and come in and ask me what I mean. That sign has brought customers because they are curious.”

But more often than not, people in the community love Nadia and her restaurant. They were supportive when, she 6 months after she opened her restaurant, COVID hit and dine-in was closed. Nadia said she is grateful for the community she has found despite those trials and tribulations.

“I’ve been very lucky,” Nadia said. “From the beginning, a small group of people have believed in me. When they didn’t need to, they bought food from me and kept our doors open. We now have over 5k followers on FB, and every morning I do a post about something about Italy and things that pertain to the restaurant. People love it. I keep the engagement high, and I ask them what they think we should do if we’re having a problem. I’m open to suggestions and people respond.

“Last August our AC went out, so it was over 100 degrees inside,” Nadia continued. “I told people I would try to keep the oven going but I’d appreciate it if they ordered takeout. People came by and gave money. I am moved by how much people care about the restaurant and me. I found that women are by far my largest supporters and cheerleaders.”

Alexandra Mortati is the marketing director for Orlando Foods and founder of Women In Pizza, a not-for-profit organization that empowers women in the pizza industry to share their stories, display their talents, inspire innovations, and connect with one another and the world. This article originally appeared on the Instagram account for Women In Pizza. Click here to learn more about the organization.