On a Friday night, the idea of going to a gourmet dinner at a 16th-century Medici Fortress overlooking the rolling, ‘trapped in the Middle Age’ town of Volterra in the Italian region of Tuscany is a must try. Simply, this is not your ordinary Tuscan dining experience. The fortress is a maximum-security prison, where the meal is handled, prepared and served by thirty of its one hundred fifty inmates. “My aim is to create working opportunities for the convicts outside, and reciprocally offer real services to the area,” states Maria Grazia Gianpiccolo, the prison’s director. As a matter of fact, 25 inmates have a job outside the prison in the day time and get back in the evening; 8 of these work in restaurants as a result of their exposure within the penitentiary.
In order to dine in the Voletrra Medici Prison fortress, visitors should reserve weeks in advance, send copies of their passports, for obvious security reasons, and pay up $44. All proceeds go straight to charity. When leaving bags and cellphones at the door, the 120-odd clients are guided to a candlelit court for nibbles and Prosecco. The meal is given in a cavernous deconsecrated chapel prettied up with tablecloths, hand-crafted table decorations, glasses, plates and of course plastic cutlery, one of the grants designed for security.
An inmate, Gianluca, in prison for murder, had managed to run a pizzeria-bakery, south of Italy. He works in the prison’s kitchen, on a regular basis, and states that the tips he acquires from the master chefs brought in are priceless. “If you know how to work in a kitchen, it is so much easier to get a job when you’re out,” he says.
The six-course meal in the Medici prison restaurant unfolds, coming from the local produce supplied by a supermarket cooperative, it feels like anywhere but a prison. To begin, red prawns are served dressed with fennel and orange, the soup given is made with local zolfini beans and scampi. This is immediately followed by a risotto seasoned with saffron, turbot, succulent local salami, and local Chianina beef. The dessert is a chocolate cake served with glazed orange and spiced up pears. Coffee goes with hand-crafted chocolates and petits fours. The conversation is streaming among convicts, wardens and the public, and so is the wine, provided by a wine-making company just 30 miles out. The atmosphere could not be more convivial.
For this moment alone, before heading back home or to the hotel and the inmates head back to their cells, the scene is simply of people enjoying a very special evening.