Tuesday, May 22, 2007

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-year-old 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 50-year-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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