Max­i­mum sat­is­fac­tion at prison eatery

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two - By Nick Pisa

ROME — Din­ers are flock­ing to what could be called the most exclusive restau­rant in Italy — one lo­cated inside a top-se­cu­rity prison, where the chefs and wait­ers are Mafiosi, rob­bers and mur­der­ers.

Ser­e­naded by Bruno, a pi­anist do­ing life for mur­der, the clien­tele eat inside a de­con­se­crated chapel set be­hind the 60-foot-high walls, watch­tow­ers, search­lights and se­cu­rity cam­eras of the daunt­ing 500-yearold Fortezza Medicea, at Volterra near Pisa.

Un­der the watch­ful eye of armed prison guards, a 20-strong team of chefs, kitchen hands and wait­ers nightly serve 120 din­ers who all have un­der­gone strict se­cu­rity checks. Ta­bles are booked weeks in ad­vance.

Prison di­rec­tor Maria Grazia Gi­ampic­colo said the in­mates have de­vel­oped a flair for their cook­ing.

“I feel haute cui­sine in a place like this pre­pares the in­mates for when they are even­tu­ally re­leased,” he said. “The guests en­joy their meals, and al­though the se­cu­rity seems at first very daunt­ing and im­pos­ing, they get over it quite quickly and for­get about the guards.”

The Mafia may be in charge, but there is no horse’s head on this menu. In­stead, a smart, mainly mid­dle-aged crowd tucks into a veg­e­tar­ian sig­na­ture menu, cooked up by head chef Egidio — serv­ing life for mur­der — and com­pet­i­tively priced at $33.

The restau­rant opened two months ago and has proved so pop­u­lar that Italy’s prison de­part­ment is think­ing of try­ing it in other pris­ons.

Se­cur­ing a ta­ble is as tricky as get­ting past the sternest maitre d’. Din­ers are thor­oughly vet­ted by the Min­istry of Jus­tice in Rome and any­one with a du­bi­ous back­ground is turned down.

But at least there is no dan­ger of the meal be­ing dis­rupted by the an­noy­ing chirrup of cell phones. They have to be handed in, along with hand­bags, and ID must be pro­duced be­fore pass­ing through a metal de­tec­tor at the top of stairs lead­ing into the com­plex, which houses 150 in­mates.

Din­ers go through a se­ries of check­points and past the cells be­fore sit­ting down in the can­dlelit restau­rant.

In the kitchen, Egidio, a burly 50year-old from Taranto in south­ern Italy, reigns over his team of six chefs. “The pasta is boil­ing over; more salt, less gar­lic; keep stir­ring the pasta sauce,” he shouts.

Sev­en­teen years into his sen­tence, he is think­ing of go­ing into the restau­rant busi­ness when they fi­nally let him out. “Like any Ital­ian I take my food very, very se­ri­ously. I like to be sure the din­ers are sat­is­fied and they don’t just en­joy the food, but en­joy it with the same pas­sion that I pre­pare it.”

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, given his record, din­ers have been re­luc­tant to crit­i­cize.

“Be­fore this, I couldn’t even fry an egg, but now here I am pre­par­ing five-course din­ners, and I have not had any com­plaints,” he said.

Most of the dishes the restau­rant serves are south­ern Ital­ian sta­ples from or­ga­nized-crime hot spots like Puglia, Si­cily and Naples.

Som­me­lier San­tolo Ma­trone, 41, from Naples, landed be­hind bars af­ter get­ting into “a spot of bother” when he was younger, which earned him a 24-year sen­tence for mur­der. He, too, is hop­ing to use his new skills when he gets out in about seven years.

“I’d like to think that when I get out of here, I can start a fam­ily and maybe get a job in a restau­rant or ho­tel,” he said.

The unique na­ture of the restau­rant has im­posed some re­stric­tions. “Guards watch over the in­mates in the kitchens at all times, and the cut­lery used is plas­tic, as are the plates,” said Mr. Gi­ampic­colo. “The main thing is trust, and we trust the in­mates to be­have. If we didn’t, we would not al­low this to hap­pen.’’

Din­ers pro­fessed them­selves de­lighted. “When I heard about it, I thought it sounded fun, so we booked a ta­ble, and I have to say the food has been very good,” said off-duty po­lice of­fi­cer Alessan­dra Ci­a­bat­tini, 36.

“The fact that the dishes are pre­pared by mur­der­ers, armed rob­bers, Mafiosi or ter­ror­ists doesn’t re­ally bother me, though I might be wor­ried if some­one had been con­victed of poi­son­ing.”

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