By JIM YARDLEYMARCH 5, 2016
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 March, and the Milanese elite have taken note. A former bank president came a few weeks ago. So did a former Miss Italy. Families come on weekends.
For Silvia Polleri, the restaurant’s manager and visionary, InGalera is a dizzying triumph, if more because of the locale than because of the food.
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.
“May I take your plate, sir?” asked a waiter, Carlos, an inmate dressed in a tie, white shirt and black vest as he cleared a table on a recent night.
It is hard 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. 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” with 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. (It has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor.)
“We wanted to see the reality here,” said Carla Borghi, who came with a group of couples from the nearby town of Paderno Dugnano. “It is not the classic restaurant. But it is a classic restaurant. The food is excellent.”
For years, Italy has struggled with its prison system, as well as how to balance punishment with rehabilitation. Overcrowding had become such a problem that in January 2013 the European Court of Human Rightsordered the country to fix the system.
Italian lawmakers responded with more alternative measures for minor crimes. In 2014, Italy also repealed harsh drug sentencing laws enacted during the 1990s, similar to the “three strikes” laws in the United States. In 2014, Italy began releasing 10,000 inmates (of roughly 60,000) who had been convicted of minor offenses.
But the issue of how best to rehabilitate offenders — and lower the recidivism rate — remained difficult. Italy has long allowed inmates in medium-security prisons to move around the facilities during the day.
“The main problem has been that they do little during the day, which doesn’t help them at the present, nor for their future outside prisons,” said Alessio Scandurra, who works for Antigone, a nonprofit group focused on the rights of detainees.
The Bollate prison was at the vanguard of experimentation even before opening the restaurant. Under the director, Massimo Parisi, the prison offers an array of programs. Companies have work programs on prison grounds. Volunteers teach theater and painting. Carpentry skills are taught in workshops equipped with power drills and saws. Inmates maintain a stable of horses in the prison yard.
There is also an initiative involving a carefully vetted group of 200 inmates who are allowed to leave each day for jobs with an outside firm. Inmates travel without supervision on public transportation; they must check in upon arrival at work, and at other points during the day.
Mr. Parisi said only one inmate had failed to return at the appointed time, and he showed up a few days later.
But sending out inmates is different from asking law-abiding citizens to come in for a meal.
“Our first worry was: Who would come?” Mr. Parisi said. “But many people are coming. People are curious about prisons. It is an unknown world to many people. That creates interest.”
The force behind the project is Ms. Polleri, who 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. Once, she took a convicted bank robber to wait on tables at a reception in a bank.
But the idea of starting a restaurant was an altogether different challenge.
“People looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “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 solicited grants from sponsors, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm, and a local architect designed the restaurant’s interior for free. It is on the ground floor of the dormitory for prison guards; inmates are housed in a different part of the prison. She hired a maître d’ — who seats guests and handles the money — and a professional chef, Ivan Manzo, who was unfazed by working with convicts.
“I’ve seen a lot of crazy people working in kitchens outside of here!” Mr. Manzo said.
In the kitchen, inmates were busily preparing dishes as one, Mirko, was showing another how to make tarts. Inmates are paid up to 1,000 euros a month to work in the restaurant, and share tips.
“It is a matter of pride, a way to make people happy and show them that even inmates can change and evolve,” said Mirko, who like the other inmates wanted to be identified only by his first name.
Ms. Polleri says that she realizes 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 programs is far lower than average.
Before the dinner crowd arrived on a recent night, Ms. Polleri hovered over the waiters, reminding Carlos to “walk straight.” Her most nerve-racking moment came in early December when she learned 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, the waiters and the “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.”
Looking across the dining room, Ms. Polleri pointed to the guests enjoying their meals. “This is the revolution,” she said. “A lot of these people before didn’t know where the prison was.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the name of a penitentiary in Milan where a new restaurant has earned rave reviews. It is Bollate, not Bellate.
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the name of the restaurant. It is InGalera, not InGalara.