Fine prison dining

For those with extravagant gastronomic tastes, we suggest a jailbird dinner in the prison of Volterra..

In one of the more surreal experiences of my life, I recently found myself heading to the medieval town of Volterra in Tuscany for a gourmet dinner. The venue? Not an elegant restaurant or rustic trattoria but rather a maximum-security prison housing about 150 men, all incarcerated for serious offences, including murder, drug dealing, Mafia-related crimes and bank robberies. Far from being a one-off or hare-brained idea, the meal is part of a regular initiative called Cene Galeotte (literally ‘jailbird dinners') that takes place each month in the 14th century fortress-turned-prison that dominates the picturesque medieval town of Volterra.

The scheme began in 2006 and has gone from strength to strength. About 120 members of the public reserve a table for the meal priced at 35 Euros a head through a local tourism agency, which also offers accommodation to long-distance diners. Guests, hailing from as far away as Canada, Australia, US, Ireland and other parts of Italy, attend each dinner, with numbers swelling slightly in summer when the event is held outdoors. Attendees have to book several weeks in advance and send in their passport details for background security checks (no criminal records allowed). The money raised goes to a charity that organises long-distance adoptions of children in need in developing countries. On the evening I attend, the country in question is Peru.

After leaving our bags and mobile phones at the door, we visitors are led to one of the prison courtyards, filled with lit candles for the occasion. Tasty starters and prosecco wine are served by inmates wearing shirts, bowties and waist coats for the occasion. (About 30 inmates are involved in cooking and serving the meal. They are carefully selected by the prison wardens, the director and a team of psychologists, but cannot be involved in Mafia or drugs as they are incarcerated under different rules.) We are then led to a deconsecrated chapel with vaulted ceilings, which is done up with tablecloths, handmade table decorations, glasses, plates and, understandably but incongruously, plastic cutlery.

As the six-course meal of local produce provided by the Florence branch of the Unicoop (a regional and ethical supermarket cooperative) unfolds, we could be anywhere. Anywhere but prison that is. Starters of red prawns accompanied by fennel and orange and a soup made with local zolfini beans and scampi are brought out, followed by a risotto flavoured with saffron and succulent local salami, two separate courses of turbot (prepared with almonds, pine nuts and olives) and heavenly local beef that just melts in your mouth.

The quality of the fare is such that the fact that these local delicacies must be consumed on cheap plastic forks and knives is swiftly forgotten. The dessert is a pure chocolate cake served with candied orange and spiced pears; coffee is accompanied by handmade chocolates. The conversation flows between inmates, extremely relaxed-looking wardens and public, as does the well chosen selection of wine offered by a winemaking company located only 30 miles away. And with live entertainment provided courtesy of some musical inmates, the atmosphere could not be more convivial.

Gianluca is serving a 17-year sentence for homicide. He used to run a pizzeria/bakery in Foggia in the south and is infectiously positive about the impact of the initiative. He works regularly in the prison's kitchen but says the input and tips they get from the experienced, professional chefs that come to help devise the menu and coordinate the special monthly dinners (a different one each time) is invaluable. This time around he says they learnt how to make real chocolate pralines, complex sauces and exotic starters such as a tempura of large prawns. ‘If you know how to work in a kitchen it is much easier to find a job once you're out,' he says.

Formidable Sicilian prison director, Maria Grazia Gianpiccolo, confirms this statement. ‘My aim is to create working opportunities for the inmates outside, and in return offer real services to the area.' In fact, 25 of the inmates (who are in the last third of their sentences) are allowed to work outside the prison during the day as part of a work-release programme; eight of these, she says, work in the city's restaurants as a direct result of the experience accrued inside the penitentiary.

Back inside the dining area, I meet Gennaro, a large and jovial-looking man from Salerno, near Naples. He has three years left of a 14-year sentence and works behind the scenes during these monthly dinners dishing out the food. He says this prison is a million miles away from the other institutions he has been in. He, like many inmates I meet, asked to be transferred here for the possibility of garnering a professional/vocational diploma; others simply want to get a high school qualification. He is also a member of the prison's famous theatre troupe – the Compagnia della Fortezza – which, remarkably, goes on tour (performing inmates sleep in local prisons while away, Gianpiccolo explains later when I show my surprise). ‘When I write to people I used to be in prison with and tell them how we are still up at midnight toasting with the prison director, nobody believes me,' he says, laughing.

And indeed, it is all rather unbelievable. These are men who have committed serious offences (in most cases they have murdered or been involved in serious assaults), but they are also men who are being given the opportunity to turn their lives around, to better themselves. As Gianluca says, ‘If I could turn back time, I would not do what I have done for anything in the world.'

Another inmate, a 37-year-old dapper black man originally from Senegal, is also in a repentant frame of mind, though still clearly in denial about being behind bars. He says that if placed on a metaphorical scales of good versus bad, he and the other inmates would definitely tip the balance in the direction of ‘good' rather than ‘bad'. ‘What I have done is no worse than what prime ministers and presidents have done,' he says. I find out that he speaks seven languages, used to work in finance and has travelled the world. He says in the future he would like to work in the social profession. ‘The life that I had before no longer makes sense,' he says, bowing his head. Being locked up, it seems, cannot kill a man's need to dream. Later I find out that he is serving a life sentence (in Italy that means up to 28 years) for murdering his girlfriend.

Later on, three visiting Peruvian children (all infant workers campaigning for the right to have an education), speak to the assembled crowd about how the proceeds of this event will help them. As the youngest one bursts into tears, four inmates do the same. It is both startling and moving. When I finally leave the Fortezza well after midnight, the singing, drinking and general merriment is still going strong.

Appeared in Italy Magazine, May 2009

Photos © Marco Nordio