Going to prison for a good meal in Italy

A chef (above) tends to a risotto at the Bollate Penitentiary in Milan, where an inmate-run restaurant has become an unexpected culinary success story.
A chef (above) tends to a risotto at the Bollate Penitentiary in Milan, where an inmate-run restaurant has become an unexpected culinary success story.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
A chef tends to a risotto at the Bollate Penitentiary in Milan, where an inmate-run restaurant (above) has become an unexpected culinary success story.
A chef tends to a risotto at the Bollate Penitentiary in Milan, where an inmate-run restaurant (above) has become an unexpected culinary success story.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

MILAN • The waiters glided through the crowded dining room of InGalera, a restaurant that opened recently to rave reviews. Dinner reservations are almost fully booked for this month and the Milanese elite have taken note.

For Ms Silvia Polleri, the restaurant's manager and visionary, InGalera is a dizzying triumph, if more because of the locale.

It is inside the Bollate penitentiary, a medium-security prison with 1,100 inmates, on the outskirts of Milan. The waiters, dishwashers and cooks have been convicted of homicide, armed robbery, drug trafficking and other crimes.

It is difficult to imagine a less likely culinary success story than InGalera, or a more intriguing experiment in rehabilitating inmates - and confronting public attitudes about them.

Few people think of prisons as a place for a nice night out, yet the novelty of going to the prison grounds for food and drink has resonated and even become something of a marketing tool.

Ms Polleri decided that the best way to reassure patrons was to take a wink-wink approach.

People looked at me like I was crazy. They also thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to name it InGalera.

MSSILVIA POLLERI on the InGalera restaurant. The name is Italian slang for “in prison”

The name, InGalera, is Italian slang for "in prison". The restaurant's design is sleek, airy and modern, but the walls are decorated with posters from famous prison movies, including Escape From Alcatraz (1979) with actor Clint Eastwood.

Curiosity about a forbidden and feared world has turned a night at InGalera into a daring adventure, with a fine meal as a bonus.

"We wanted to see the reality here," said Ms Carla Borghi, who came with others from the nearby town of Paderno Dugnano. "It is not the classic restaurant. But it is a classic restaurant. The food is excellent."

Ms Polleri spent 22 years teaching kindergarten before becoming a caterer and later founding a social co-op in 2004 to help inmates. She hired select inmates from Bollate for catering jobs outside the prison.

But the idea of starting a restaurant - it is on the ground floor of the dormitory for prison guards; inmates are housed in a different part of the prison - was an altogether different challenge.

"People looked at me like I was crazy. They also thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to name it InGalera. But I wanted to stop talking about this in a sweet way."

She got sponsors and hired a maitre d' and a chef who were unfazed by working with convicts.

She says she realises the restaurant may bother some people and that she does not want to offend victims of crime.

But she argued that prisons must train inmates to become responsible citizens capable of re-entering society and noted that the recidivism rate of inmates in similar programmes is far lower than average.

Before the dinner crowd arrived on a recent night, she hovered over the waiters, reminding one to "walk straight".

Her most nerve-racking moment came in early December when she learnt that a food critic for one of the country's most important newspapers, Corriere della Sera, had secretly come for dinner one night and was preparing a review. "I couldn't sleep for a week," Ms Polleri said.

The critic praised the food, waiters and "convivial atmosphere".

He even praised the prices, which are more reasonable than most Milanese restaurants. "To have honest prices," he wrote, "you have to come to jail."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline 'Going to prison for a good meal in Italy'. Print Edition | Subscribe