VOLTERRA, Italy (Reuters) - In what might be Italy’s most exclusive restaurant, security is understandably tight.
On reservation, guests are subjected to a background check. They are admitted in groups, their mobile phones and bags confiscated, and they then submit to metal detector tests.
At the candlelit tables inside a deconsecrated chapel of what was originally a 14th-15th century castle, the meal itself is eaten with plastic cutlery.
But even though this is the Fortezza Medicea top-security prison, the white wine — Fattoria Sorbaiano — keeps flowing.
“The standard of the food is fantastic — the atmosphere, the people, and the place is incredible,” said diner Sharon Kennedy, a resident of Volterra but originally from Scotland, who came to sample a special dinner at the prison.
The inmates at the jail in the picturesque Tuscan town — surrounded by rolling green hills and brown-tiled villas — have swapped their slacks for shirts and bow ties for a night. They are cooking up a sumptuous meal for curious diners who want to sample a taste of prison life.
Part of a project raising money for charity, the aim is also to teach cooking and waiting skills that could help the prisoners find work when they are released.
The scheme, for several nights a year turning the prison into a restaurant, began in 2006. Guests reserve a table for the meal priced at 35 euros (28 pounds) a head through a local tourism agency, which also offers hotels for long-distance diners.
Surrounded by watch towers and security devices, the waiters smile and joke with guests, who number about 100, as they serve tuna tartare in citrus fruit rinds, pate with sweet wine and couscous with fish. Also on tonight’s menu: a tomato puree and carpaccio with salad leaves and parmesan.
For desert, a strawberry torte.
“It is not just a distraction, it is more than that,” said 39-year old inmate Arena Aniello. Originally from Naples, he has been in jail since 1993 for homicide: tonight, he is a waiter.
“(Prison life) is like a photocopy machine — you leave your cell, you go to work, you work out — the day is always the same, it becomes a habit. So this is a great thing.”
The prison dinners are one of several initiatives in Italy directed at teaching inmates job skills: women in Milan’s San Vittore jail are learning tailoring skills, in a similar bid to help rehabilitate them after their jail term.
In the kitchen, pots are boiling and ovens are baking around Philippine cook and inmate Joseph Harder, as he lays out fine layers of carpaccio on plates.
“Cooking is my passion,” he said, declining to disclose the crime for which he was inside. Besides working under armed guard, the main restriction on him is that he must ask permission if he wants to use a knife.
“Plenty of (people) outside ... think we are here because we’ve been bad outside, and that’s all, and we want to prove to them that we are not like that.”
The dinners have been very successful: tables are booked up well in advance and one diner said he drove his family of seven some 200 km (124 miles) for the experience.
The 30-strong team of cooks, kitchen hands, waiters and sommeliers has been carefully selected. There are 150 prisoners at Fortezza Medicea, and those in for crimes linked to Mafia, drug-trafficking and kidnapping do not participate.
This year for the first time, chefs from regional restaurants are working with the inmates.
“The aim is for our chefs to get more professional ... and to allow people to come stay in a prison, which opens up itself to the city,” prison director Mariagrazia Giampiccolo said.
For the inmates — who also have a tailor’s workshop, theatre and school in the prison — the contact with the outside world is a welcome change.
“Serving people has never been something to be proud of but it is a way to relate with people,” said Francois, who was born in Senegal, and would add only that he had been in jail “for a very long time”.
“We don’t exchange ideas but compared to the daily monotony, it is a big change, new faces. It is more fun than staying in a cell.”
Additional reporting by Chris Helgren; Editing by Sara Ledwith