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Can A Pizza Oven Change Lives? Cook County Jail Inmates Get Cooking

 Inmates in Cook County Jail's culinary program are the recipients of a $16,000 pizza oven, acquired through crowdfunding and private donations.
Cook County Jail
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LITTLE VILLAGE — The newest piece of equipment at Cook County Jail might be the ticket out for some inmates.

A hulking $16,000 pizza oven, so heavy it broke the moving pallet, was delivered Tuesday to Division 11, the medium-security facility at 3015 S. California Ave., where for the last year chef Bruno Abate has run a unique culinary program for inmates.

Abate's goal is to teach these men marketable skills that can get them into kitchen jobs and out of jail for good. They've cooked with fresh meats and herbs, made pan sauces and rolled numerous pounds of dough into pasta and pizza — especially pizza.

"When you know how to make pizza well, you can find a job anywhere," said Abate, a native Italian.

But there was only so much he could show them with the limited equipment in the basement kitchen. To make true Neapolitan-style pizza, they needed a real oven, one that fires up to 800 degrees.

With the help of Ronald Gidwitz, the prominent Chicago businessman and former CEO of Helene Curtis, they got one — a top-of-the-line, gas-converted Marra Forni oven.

Cook County Jail's $16,000 pizza oven was acquired through crowdfunding and private donations. [Cook County Sheriff's Office]

Gidwitz met Abate a few months back while eating dinner at Tocco, 1266 N. Milwaukee Ave., Abate's Wicker Park restaurant. Abate, tall and engaging with a deep voice, told Gidwitz about his classes at the jail.

"I thought, 'If he can spend 15 hours a week volunteering here, I can raise enough to get him a pizza oven,'" Gidwitz said.

They set up an Indiegogo campaign in February that raised nearly $5,000. Gidwitz said he appealed to five friends, who kicked in $11,000 more.

On Tuesday, Gidwitz and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart were among the 40 people treated to a two-course lunch cooked and served by the inmates in the Division 11 dining room.

They ate grilled organic vegetables and mixed greens with a balsamic vinaigrette followed by lemony chicken scallopine with potato brandade and asparagus pesto. No pizza, though. The oven was installed the next day.

Inmates at Cook County Jail prepare a meal under the direction of chef Bruno Abate (at rear). [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

This group of inmates is nearing the end of its 10-week session, after which a new group will be chosen. Some are repeat students.

"It's amazing because I can make so many different pastas now," said one such inmate, 50-year-old Alfredo (his last name can't be printed as he is awaiting trial). "I was laughing with the guys that I can probably make one of them a pair of shoes out of pasta."

Dart said next on his list is making the program "sustainable and scalable" beyond the walls of Division 11, similar to what's been done at Due Palazzi, an Italian prison that has been Abate's inspiration all along.

The prison is famous for its award-winning bakery where inmates bake and sell panettone and other pastries.

"The ultimate goal is to box and sell [pizza] outside of here," Dart said. "I think we can do it."

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