“Si vis pacem, para bellum” – it translates as “if you want peace, prepare for war”. This Latin slogan is emblazoned in full view of everyone who comes to Veterano Pizza, a pizzeria founded by ATO veteran Leonid Ostaltsev two years ago.
It marked his uneasy return to civilian life. He saw war at close quarters – he enrolled to volunteer in a service battalion in 2014 and fought as a gunner in the hottest spots of Donbas. Prior, he used to be a pizza-maker and dreamed of one day becoming a restaurateur. War intervened before he came full circle.
Looking for Normal
We meet Ostaltsev one afternoon at Veterano Resto – a new eatery opened under the Veterano brand next door to Veterano Pizza.
In his black fleece jacket and with his thick beard he looks imposing, but his voice is soft and quiet: “One day my friend came to me saying he left his job after punching his boss in the face. He could not work there any more – no one trusted him after he had been to war. I’d heard dozens of stories like that: veterans coming back to peaceful cities to see that nothing had changed, while they had changed so much. That day I decided to start a pizzeria and hire veterans to help myself and guys like me to return to normal life.”
To open his pizzeria Ostaltsev had $50 in his pocket, another $100 he received from an entrepreneur in the US, who later became his friend. Next came refusals from 22 investors and finally one who agreed to back him. The first iteration of Veterano Pizza opened in Metrograd beneath Besarabska Square. Since then Ostaltsev has parted company with his initial investor, moved to a new location and got a loan of 1.7 million UAH to open Veterano Resto.
To work here a veteran doesn’t need to have specific experience: “I taught the guys to make pizza, now they teach the newcomers. We also have two psychologists coming for individual and group meetings with employees, but the most important thing is that we support each other – we could never speak of the war with civilians in the same way we do with each other. There are things only veterans understand.”
If I come back alive…
We sneak to the kitchen of Veterano, where Ihor takes out a diavola pizza from the stove and cuts it skillfully with a pizza knife. “We mix Italian and Ukrainian products in our pizza,” he says, pointing at a huge sack of Italian flour and piles of the Ukrainian milled equivalent, “to shape the dough we take corn flour – it adds a crispy texture”. This 31-year-old, who smiles so widely the smile lines crinkle around his eyes lending him an air of wisdom, used to command more than a dozen artillery soldiers in Donbas in 2015. He has the time down pat – one year, two months and four days serving in the ATO zone. He recalls the most difficult weeks occurred in the Svitlodarska Duha region: “We had tasks every night. We discussed it in the evening. I gave orders to my guys and felt a tremendous level of adrenaline – it’s like a lottery, you don’t know what is going to happen in the next couple of hours. It was not fear, I suppose it was the alarm of a person facing the unknown”. Coming home after war, Ihor did not want to return to his previous job in the press-centre of a state institution. “We were eating pizza at Veterano on Besarabka once and I joked with my comrades if I come back alive I should come and work here.”
Not Everyone Has to Go to War
“Be careful, don’t hit the ceiling with your head, you haven’t finished the sauce yet, we still need you,” – says the chef to a guy doing pull-ups on the horizontal bar installed in the corridor of Veterano Resto. Chef Ihor is the only civilian here. He will work with veterans for two months to launch a new menu.
His subordinate Borys in a black kitchen jacket and camouflage apron is busy preparing veal. He is 25 and a trained cook. He went to war as a volunteer in 2015 and fought for seven months in the Luhansk region in the special forces. To tell his story he takes a cigarette break.
“I went to war in the times of the so-called armistice, but I can tell you it was the greatest horror of my life – the first three weeks I lived in total fear. The same fear I felt coming back to Kyiv. I was lost and extremely aggressive at the same time, and then one thought calmed me down: not everyone has to go to war. For there are still guys fighting over there, the rest of the country can live normal lives, go to work, hang out at nightclubs. I wanted to get a job and saw an announcement on Facebook from Veterano – ‘We are looking for superheroes!’ I met Leonid, told him about myself and that I had no experience in cooking. ‘You’re a machine gunner, so am I, come to work tomorrow,’ he said, so I’m here.”
Working among guys who experienced war as he did, Borys has finally found a sense of ease. He is happily married and he and his wife just welcomed a new baby. However, trauma lingers and he still avoids crowded places like the metro and street markets.
Coming to Veterano Resto on a Friday evening, What’s On finds the place packed: veterans in camouflage and civilians dine, enjoying the stylish interior and succulent steaks. From one small pizzeria, the project has expanded to two eateries in Kyiv, another pizzeria in Dnipro, plus almost 10 Veterano Coffee street spots. Veterano Pizza remains the only Ukrainian restaurant to get coverage in The New York Times. It didn’t go down well and these veterans have no time to mince words. “We messed up with them,” Ostaltsev says. “They wrote Crimea is a disputed territory, so we told them to go to hell.”
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