Panettone is the Italian national Christmas cake, and it is notoriously tricky to perfect. So when the version from Pasticceria Giotto was named one of the 10 best in Italy, it was a real honor. But the most striking difference between the panettone at Giotto and the nine others on the list is that Giotto’s is made in a prison.
Inside the Due Palazzi prison on the outskirts of Padua, in northeastern Italy, a crew of inmates in white coats is supervised by four professional pastry chefs. Six days a week, they start baking at 4 a.m., beginning with the brioche that will be served by local pastry shops and hotels. Giotto also produces cookies, pies, nougat, chocolate and ice cream, but panettone is the specialty.
Giovanni, an inmate who was identified only by his first name in accordance with prison guidelines, has been working in the bakery for the last five years of his 23-year sentence. (Officials will not disclose the prisoners’ crimes.)
“Before I was in prison, I had never tasted panettone,” he said, “but I really like it, and every Christmas I get five or six and send them to my family in Sicily.”
The word panettone derives from panetto, a small loaf cake. The suffix, -one, changes the meaning to “large cake.” Similar recipes date back to the Roman Empire, when honey was used to sweeten a type of leavened dough. The cake is mentioned in a recipe book written in the 1500s by Bartolomeo Scappi, a personal chef to popes and kings during the time of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; it was first referred to as pan de ton (“luxury bread”) by 18th-century scholar Pietro Verri in one of his writings.
A well-baked panettone is a point of pride for Italian pasticcerie, and every year Italians consume about 9 1/2 million of the cakes, mostly around the holidays.
Baking them is a meticulous process that involves multiple kneadings and leavenings over the course of 72 hours. After baking for an hour, the cakes are taken out of the oven and allowed to cool while hanging upside down, to keep their characteristic domed tops from falling. In all, the Giotto team will bake more than 80,000 panettone this holiday season.
The baking program, which began in 2005, is run by Work Crossing Cooperative, a nonprofit group that operates prison work programs in the region. In early December, the cooperative even opened a Pasticceria Giotto storefront in Padua.
The Italian prison system is overcrowded, and the national recidivism average is 70%, according to the Ministry of Justice, with a majority of inmates returning for sentences longer than their first. That rate drops to 5%, however, for inmates who work while incarcerated.
Matteo Marchetto, president of Work Crossing Cooperative, said the Italian constitution explicitly mentions education as part of the purpose of a prison sentence.
“The sentence must be fully expiated, but at the same time there must be a path to recovery,” Marchetto said. “Otherwise, these years are wasted public resources.”
Before being accepted into the baking program, inmates must work with a psychologist for six months. Once accepted, they do a six-month internship before becoming full employees. For the next six months, they make 650 euros (around $735) a month, then graduate to 800 euros, and finally to 1,000 euros. Throughout the process the inmates continue to work with a psychologist.
Matteo Concolato, a pastry chef who helps supervise the inmates as they bake, said he had witnessed the program’s benefits firsthand.
“One thing that gives a lot of satisfaction is to see a guy who may never have worked before and comes from years in prison who gradually becomes passionate, acquires a sense of responsibility for what he is doing, begins to trust himself and others again,” he said.