Prison restaurant that'll make you a pasta you can't refuse
DINERS are flocking to what could perhaps be termed 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 60ft high walls, watch towers, searchlights and security cameras of the daunting 500-year-old Fortezza Medicea, at Volterra near Pisa.
Under the watchful eye of armed prison warders, a 20-strong team of chefs, kitchen hands and waiters prepares 120 covers for diners who have all undergone strict security checks. Tables are booked up weeks in advance.
Prison director MariaGrazia Giampiccolo said the inmates had developed a flair for their cooking: "I feel haute cuisine in a place like this prepares the inmates for when they are eventually released. The guests enjoy their meals and although the security seems at first very daunting, 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 keenly priced at €25.
The restaurant opened two months ago and has proved so popular that Italy's prison department is thinking of trying it in other jails.
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 mobile 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 50-year-old from Taranto, in southern Italy, reigns over his team of six chefs like an Italian Gordon Ramsey. "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 passion that I prepare it."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his record, diners have been reluctant to criticise.
"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 organised crime hotspots such as Puglia, Sicily and Naples.
Somelier 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.