InGalera restaurant is now open to the public from Monday to Saturday like any of the thousands of other restaurants in Milan, Italy. But unlike all of its competitors, restaurant service here exists within the walls of the Bollate prison, where prisoners run the show. The chef and the head waiter are the only non-inmates.
Since it opened in 2000, Bollate has been the only "open-cell prison" in Italy and one of the few in the world where inmates are allowed to freely move around and are encouraged to join work-release programs. The program encourages inmates to apply for a special authorization that allows them to leave the prison for a few hours a day to work in the field.
All staff members at InGalera—which appropriately translates to "in jail"—are part of such programs, and are officially employed by the restaurant management, and most importantly, receive basic salaries for their jobs. The law does not allow convicts to receive actual money, but they can transfer it to their families via their bank accounts or use it while on special leave.
When I arrive to the prison for lunch, Said and Giovanni are busy working service. Said is of Moroccan origins; he has six years left in his sentence but he hopes to find work as a waiter once he's free. Like others at the prison, he found it difficult at first to get used to working at the restaurant. And this is not just because waiting on customers is no easy task, Said says, but also because dealing with free people on a daily basis after living in a cell for several years may prove a shocking transition. Giuseppe, 23, the younger waiter, explains why: "Customers see me only as their waiter, period. They don't judge me and I feel like they treat me like an ordinary person. This is a new experience for my life in jail and something that I can feel proud of with my family on the outside."
As I sit at my table, I forget that I'm actually dining inside a correctional facility except for the prison-themed movie posters hanging on the walls. Today, the chef proposes a single-course inclusive of paccheri alla sorrentina, a tube-shaped pasta served with fresh tomato sauce and mozzarella, squid stew with peas, and potato salad, served on the side. Everything from the menu to the minimalist wine cellar make InGalera look like any other popular restaurant in downtown Milan.
According to the restaurant's manager, Silvia Polleri, the stylish dining room was a former conference room for correctional officers. Its restaurant transformation was made possible when private funders decided to invest money in the InGalera project. The accounting giant PwC decided to finance the restaurant following the success of Brigade, a London-based social enterprise that offers homeless people the opportunity to work at a fire station-turned-bistro. Thanks to private investments, the application for public funds is still "under consideration" by the Ministry of Justice, but the restaurant finally opened a few weeks ago.
The idea, however, dates back to the early years of the Bollate prison. In 2004, a number of former bakers, cooks, pizza makers, and waiters happened to serve their sentences in the new Milan jailhouse. Aware of the work release programs that are active there, they requested to engage in cooking activities by the warden at the time, Lucia Castellano. Silvia Polleri, an acquaintance of Castellano's and a veteran of high-end catering for the Milanese upper class, was recruited to start the business.
When the new catering adventure started, many of the employees had been in prison "for so long that mozzarella cherries hadn't been invented when they first went to jail," laughs Polleri. And for those with previous experiences in the cooking field, there were others who had never worked in professional kitchens. Graziano, 48, had barely worked at all in his life when he was arrested in 2006. He lived mostly off of robberies to satisfy his cocaine addiction but started first working as a cook when he was transferred to Bollate in 2010.
Thanks to this training, Graziano can now put his expertise as a pastry chef at InGalera to good use. The restaurant serves fine-dining dishes such as salt cod with red pepper cream and caper flowers and angler medallions with baby spinach, raisins, and pine nuts, but not all of the cooks have the experience walking into the job. In fact, most of the employees are selected by the duration of their sentence to favor those who seek to find a place in society once they are released from prison.
Indeed, a scientific study seems to show that recidivism is 10 percent less frequent for Bollate inmates than any other Italian prisons, making it a widely held model for other penitentiaries.
The restaurant's broader goal is to fight the prejudices against former convicts in the world and facilitate "rehabilitation," and the quality food is part of that process. "People are intrigued by InGallera's catchy name and by the transgressive idea of "going to jail," for dinner, Polleri explains, at the end of our conversation. "Perhaps Italian people really need to sit at a table to digest criminal issues," she explains.