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Europe

This Italian restaurant run by ex-drug addicts now has a Michelin nod

Vite restaurant sits atop a low hill in northern Italy surrounded by verdant vineyards and boasting a panoramic view of the Adriatic sea.

But the view and sleek and stylish interior are far from the only draws. The restaurant has just been awarded a Michelin Green star making it just one of 48 restaurants to receive the accolade in Italy.

For the staff here, this is more than an award for cooking.

Unbeknownst to most diners, almost all the workers at Vite are recovering substance abusers. Not long ago, they were fighting to escape a spiral of drug addiction, now they are part of a Michelin-starred kitchen team.

The biggest drug rehabilitation centre in Europe

Vite restaurant is part of the wider San Patrignano community located in the Emilia-Romagna region.

This centre is dedicated to helping individuals with substance disorders to recover and reintegrate into society, and it is the biggest of its kind in Europe.

Arianna Merlo is Vite’s restaurant manager as well as an ex-member of the San Patrignano programme. Like most of the restaurant’s workers, she joined the three-year course after developing an addiction to drugs.

“I arrived here as an addict having already tried another pharmacological programme that didn’t work for me,” Merlo said. “In fact, half an hour after leaving that programme I immediately returned to drugs.”

The San Patrignano approach – a psychotherapeutic programme that doesn’t employ pharmaceuticals – helped her “find an equilibrium”, she said.

At San Patrignano, patients can convalesce free of charge, but during their stay, they are expected to join different activities to learn skills for rehabilitation.

The centre has a range of sectors from meat and cheese production to furniture making and leather work. Participants of the programme undertake a stint at Vite restaurant at the end of their stay at San Patrignano.

“Some of the team have already worked in hospitality before turning to drugs, but others become passionate during their stay here,“ Merlo told Euronews.

“They can stay as long as they feel they need working at the restaurant in order to conclude their time at the centre and reintegrate into the outside world.”

‘They are so stimulating and motivating’

The team at Vite is led by three employees that are external to the San Patrignano programme.

Chef Davide Pontoriere runs the kitchen with his second in command while there is a professional maître d’ to lead the team of waiters.

Otherwise, all the workers are there as part of their recovery programme.

“It’s not simple for me as an outsider to work with the boys and girls, there is a lot of responsibility because many are learning from scratch,“ Pontoriere said.

“But they are so stimulating and motivating, it’s incredible to see their progress from rock bottom when they arrive to refinding themselves at the end of the course.”

The team is very young and many had succumbed to a substance addiction before even turning 18. Despite this, they are a slick and highly professional team.

Importantly, though, they are also very open about their past.

“As they are at the end of their course here, they are happy to talk to you about anything,“ Pontoriere said. “In fact, it’s people like me from outside who are shy about asking them questions.”

Sommelier Emanuele Franchi is one ex-member of the San Patrignano community who has returned to work at Vite after completing his three-year course.

“I was working in a nightclub when I had just left school, and that was the beginning of my journey to San Patrignano,” he explained.

Now, he is in charge of stocking the restaurant’s formidable wine cellar and has ambitions to open his own cocktail bar.

Plenty of Vite’s staff have gone on to find prestigious positions in the hospitality industry.

“One of the guys who left in August is now working in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Modena,” Pontoriere said.

Pastry chef Alice Olfi has just a couple of weeks left before she hopes to take up the position in another restaurant. If her mini lemon cream-filled profiteroles and white chocolate macarons are anything to go by, she’s just beginning what could be an illustrious career.

Only the beginning

Vite was awarded a Michelin Green star last month, four years after it first opened its doors.

The accolade recognises the zero-kilometre produce that makes up 80 per cent of the restaurant’s primary ingredients.

Delicate breadsticks and fluffy focaccia come from the San Patrignano bakery, salami and cheese is produced on-site and the wine is made from vineyards visible from the restaurant windows.

Although Pontoriere acknowledges that the award doesn’t hold the same weight as a ‘real’ Michelin star, he said he and the team are ecstatic.

“We were all watching the live stream of the award announcements in our homes,” he said. “When they said Vite I wasn’t sure I had heard right, but then all the team started calling me, really happy and even in tears.”

“It felt like a recognition for the team of just how much they’ve turned their lives around.”

Despite the challenges of having a kitchen crew that changes regularly and is often learning from scratch, Pontoriere has a clear objective: “I’d love to go for the full Michelin star now.”

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