Italian Woman Makes Prison Dining Chic

Prison movie posters on the walls at InGalera, at the Bollate penitentiary in Milan, as an inmate serves patrons.

Inmate serves patrons at InGalera restaurant in Bollate penitentiary on the outskirts of Milan.

One of the most interesting concepts for a fine dining experience can be found at InGalera. The restaurant is located inside the Bollate penitentiary – a medium-security prison on the outskirts of Milan, Italy. One would not expect prison food to rank anywhere on anyone’s wish list of places to eat, but at InGalera things are quite different. It is the first and only restaurant in Italy that is located within a prison and is open to the public both for lunch and dinner. The manager, maître d’ and chef are professionals, while the service staff, cooks and back of the house staff are inmates. The restaurant was created to provide prisoners the opportunity to train for a food service job by learning the skills in an operating restaurant. The menu is filled with creative dishes such as calamari with vegetable noodles, polenta pie, risotto with chanterelles, pasta and duck ragout with Marsala wine and pistachios, veal stew with winter vegetables, cod with red pepper cream and monk fish with baby spinach, raisins and pine nuts.

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.

The restaurant recently opened and has received rave reviews. It is booked each night and has a waiting list for diners extending into April. Even after the initial novelty value has worn off, the merely curious have become patrons, returning to the restaurant for the wonderful food and impeccable service. The visionary behind the restaurant is Silvia Polleri, the restaurant’s manager, whose triumph is as much due to its location as it is to its menu. It was Ms. Polleri who decided upon the name of the restaurant. The name, InGalera, is Italian slang for “In Prison.”

Lo chef Andrea Berton e Silvia Polleri, presidente della cooperativa

Silvia Polleri, restaurant manager, and chef Andrea Berton

For years, Italy has struggled with its prison system, as well as how to balance punishment with rehabilitation. The Bollate prison was at the vanguard of experimentation even before opening the restaurant. Under its 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 and inmates maintain a stable of horses in the prison yard.

Ms. Polleri had 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 was an altogether different challenge. She solicited grants from sponsors, including PriceWaterhouseCoopers 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.

Ms. Polleri is by no means exploiting the use of the convicts as a cheap labor pool. Inmates are paid up to 1,000 euros ($1,080) a month to work in the restaurant and share tips. She is of the firm belief that prisons must train inmates to become responsible citizens capable of re-entering society. The prices at InGalera are lower than at most Milanese restaurants and a food critic recently observed that “To have honest prices, you have to come to jail.”

InGalera is a revolutionary concept and an example of true “out of the box” thinking by Ms. Polleri.

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