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robert camuto: letter from europe

Wine and Punishment

Prisoners in the big house serve top Italian wines and fine food
Photo by: Robert Camuto
The walls of the restaurant, inside the gates of the Bollate penitentiary, are decorated with prison-movie posters.

Posted: Apr 11, 2016 1:00pm ET

Massimo Sestito knows how to put together a compelling Italian wine lineup.

As maitre d’ of one of Milan’s newest and trendiest restaurants, InGalera, he has carefully curated an 80-label list that is sprinkled with 90-plus-point gems and spans from Sicily and Calabria up to Barolo and Friuli and most everywhere in between.

“I prefer strong reds and delicate whites,” says Sestito, 47, a compact brick of a man fit into a black suit and tie. “I look for particular wines, and I don’t mark up the prices three or four times. I try to have a fair price-to-quality ratio.”

Fair enough. But what really distinguishes the restaurant is its location—inside the gates of the Bollate penitentiary, a medium-security facility near the Milan fairgrounds that holds more than 1,000 inmates. The waiters, cooks, dishwashers—everyone except Sestito, chef Ivan Manzo, the hostess who greets customers at the prison gates and the restaurant’s creator—are long-term inmates.

“We have murderers, bank robbers, everything,” says Silvia Polleri, 65, a retired kindergarten teacher turned caterer, who in September 2015 opened InGalera as Italy’s first public restaurant in a prison.

Bollate prides itself on innovative programs and drastically reduced inmate recidivism. But InGalera is more than just a high-minded social experiment. It serves serious gastronomic cuisine, with white-linen service and great wines at bargain prices in a light, sleek dining room. “Every night we do 60 covers,” says Sestito. “We are full.”

Manzo, 46, is a veteran chef who honed his trade at Milan’s luxurious Hotel Principe di Savoia before leading the kitchen of a high-end ski hotel in the Alps. At InGalera, his main dishes top out at 20 euros (about $23) and tasting menus are 30 euros (about $34).

Robert Camuto
Maître d' Massimo Sestito and chef Ivan Manzo, veterans of the restaurant business, have put together an affordable menu and wine list.

Sestito’s wine selections include whites from J. Hofstätter in Alto Adige, Franciacortas by Bellavista and stellar reds at bargain prices, such as 94-point La Gerla Brunello di Montalcino 2010 for 40 euros (about $45) and 90-point Cusumano Sicilia Sàgana Tenuta San Giacomo 2012, a Nero d’Avola, for 35 euros (less than $40).

Polleri began working with prisoners in 2004 after one of her clients, the ex-director of Bollate, asked her to participate in a work-release program—taking prisoners to cater weddings and other events. Polleri and the prison share the mission of using food preparation and service as a form of rehabilitation.

“Everyone is here in prison because they didn’t respect the rules of society,” Polleri says. “In a restaurant, you must learn and respect rules. It’s perfect for them! Working in a restaurant, you understand immediately if what you did was right or wrong.”

Robert Camuto
Massimo Sestito checks in with Silvia Polleri, who created the restaurant after working with prisoners in a work-release program at her catering company.

For InGalera, Polleri raised nearly $300,000 for renovations from corporate sponsors and recruited Manzo, a physically imposing figure who weighs more than 300 pounds. (“He’s a kind of security,” Polleri says of her chef, whose last name means “beef.”) Manzo, in turn, recruited Sestito, also a veteran of upscale hotel restaurants.

Rather than playing down the setting, Polleri played with it, decorating the space with oversized prison-movie posters. (“Look, Steve McQueen for the ladies,” she says, showing the women’s bathroom, with its poster of 1973’s Papillon.)

In more than a decade of working with prisoners, both in her catering business and now at InGalera, Polleri says she has never had a problem with an inmate. Sestito says inmate-staffers can be more attentive than most employees: “You have an eagerness you don’t find on the outside. They are very motivated.”

After he finished his lunch shift, the Kosovo-born dishwasher, Ashje (the prison asks the restaurant not to give out the full names of inmates), walked into the dining room. The 48-year-old calmly explained that he had been robbing banks and jacking ATM machines in Italy since he was 18. He has served six years of a 14-year sentence.

“Working here is the first salary I’ve had,” he says, smiling openly.

InGalera employees, selected from applicants who don’t have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, are paid 800 to 1,100 euros a month (about $910 to $1,250) and divide tips. They don't handle customers' cash or credit cards, and while inmates do pour wine, they are not allowed to drink. “But some of them have developed an interest in the world of wine,” says Sestito.

“It’s a beautiful project,” he says, stirring an afternoon espresso. “The strength of Italy is serving the world food and wine.”

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