“Why are you going to Milan?” people would ask.
“To eat in a prison,” I would say.
“Ok,” they would respond, without ever truly processing the information.
But the most difficult person to convince that we really were going to a prison restaurant was the taxi driver.
My friend Olivia wisely gave us three different taxi company numbers as we departed the city center.
After waiting in the rain for more than 30 minutes, and very surely (I was convinced) missing our reservation, our taxi finally arrived.
Previous to this standing in the rain in the middle of nowhere, we had taken the red metro to the end of the line, exiting on the outskirts of Milan.
With no ubers, no buses, and no waiting cabs, we were very much stuck.
I rang for a taxi only to have the operator hang up on me twice when I tried to explain where I was and where I was going. But just as I was ready to give up in sad, soaking wet defeat, Jimmy told me to call one last time. Through the mist, Romeo 13, our white knight of a taxi, pulled up in the middle of nowhere.
“We are going to the restaurant in the prison,” I told him.
“Near the jail?” he asked, squinting at the road through the rain.
“At the jail,” I clarified. He simply nodded and continued on.
“This is the jail,” he said as we cruised slowly down an empty street. “Where is the restaurant?”
“That is it! This is the restaurant! InGalera!”
He stopped the car and looked at me like a crazy person. Then, he burst out laughing.
“Raggazzi!!!” he cried, before dropping us off. “You’re going to eat in a prison!” (In galera is slang for jail).
He was still laughing as he drove away, leaving us to walk into the bleak waiting room which was clearly indicated for family visits.
What had I gotten us in to this time?
Two boys, looking no more than 18 years old, were the only people in the large room. “Kennedy?” the most baby-faced of the two asked. “Please follow me.”
As we walked through the waiting room doors, the concrete prison loomed in front of us through the constant drizzle. The foreboding structure was all the more intimidating now that we were on the wrong side of the gate, walking towards the 8 story structure that turned yellow under the security lights.
Bollate is a very real, functioning, medium-security prison.
It is also the location of one of Milan’s most exclusive restaurants.
With the help of a chef d’cuisine and a Maître d’, the rest of the staff is comprised entirely of current inmates.
Based on the sadsack prison waiting room, and the gloomy drizzle against the concrete prison, I expected Ingalera to be a depressing place to eat, but as soon as we walked through the (barred) doorway, we were at ease. Large groups sat at long tables, chatting and laughing over dinner.
The design is thoroughly modern, with deep blue accent walls and bright light fixtures rimmed with gold. But the best part of the design are the floor-to-ceiling posters of old prison movies.
Think: The Green Mile and Escape for Alcatraz. There is no shying away from the location, or pretending its anything but prison, however the lighthearted touches make it impossible to feel voyeuristic or depressed.
The whole point of InGalera is to allow for this interaction between the public and the prisoners. The goal is to provide inmates with the confidence and the skills to thrive after their release. And the skills are very much focused on the food.
The shy professionalism of the waiters is admirable, but the kitchen is no slouch.
From behind the swinging doors emerge northern Italian classics with innovative touches.
An amuse buche to start that was the right balance of salty and sweet.
Next came my manzo all’olio (slow cooked beef), serve with polenta topped with a cocoa.
The pasta was perfect and I greedily stole bite after bite off Jimmy’s plate.
And the wine selected from a leatherbound menu? Well, I wrote about that here.
We watched the elaborate tableside preparation of the house dessert before deciding that the day, and the trip out to the prison, had been long enough.
We skipped the sweets and asked for the bill.
If you want to dine at InGalera, I suggest going by car.
Our time felt a bit rushed due to our delay in finding an (expensive) taxi to get there and then my underlying anxiety that we would stay too late and have trouble finding another cab.
The restaurant was kind enough to order a taxi for us, but it would be best to go by private car.
I mean… prisons are not usually known for their central locations.
Reservations are required and recommended as far in advance as possible. Call or email:
+39 334 3081189
Via Cristina Belgioioso, 120
Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner.