The Healing Power of “Bello”
How an Italian community uses craftsmanship to rehabilitate some of Europe’s most intractable drug addicts.
By LAURA FRASER
In the hills above Rimini, Italy, is a restaurant renowned across the region for its pizza. The terrace, surrounded by flowering trees, overlooks vineyards that roll down to the distant Adriatic Sea. In the center of the restaurant, called “SP.accio,” tattooed men knead, shape, and twirl dough in a gleaming, open kitchen. The cooks follow the standard routine of any good pizzaiolo—they sprinkle on herbs and cheese, and slip the pies into a fiercely-hot, wood-burning oven—but they cook with unusual focus and passion, as if their very lives depended on the perfection of these pizzas.
“The dough teaches you,” says Massimo Bertoglia, the head chef, as he shapes a piece into a round. “You have to have constancy, and you have to have care.” He pauses to survey his results and seems pleased. “If you don’t care for it, it will die.”
Unlike most rehab methods, SanPa doesn’t rely on therapists, substitute drug treatment, 12-step programs, or religion. Instead, it treats addiction as a community problem, where an individual’s destructive tendencies can be changed by becoming a member of a big family, Italian-style, participating in work and education for the common good.
Bertoglia’s pizza philosophy is far more than a metaphor. Learning to become a pizzaiolo actually did help to save his life. A former drug addict, Bertoglia is one of some 26,000 people since 1978 who have come to San Patrignano, the addiction recovery community that runs this restaurant, as a last-ditch effort to pull himself out of a life centered on doing anything necessary to get his next fix. Everyone who works at SP.accio, from chef Bertoligia to the waiters, busboys, and the woman who sells gifts in the boutique (“spaccio” means store in Italian) is either a current resident or a graduate of the rehab program. Some of the best chefs in Italy come here to train the pizzaioli, who are highly sought-after in Italy after graduation.
It’s easy to see why. All the ingredients at the restaurant, Bertoglia explains, are kilometro zero—produced within view of the terrace tables, from the tomatoes and basil to the wine, mozzarella cheese, prosciutto, and delicate date cookies served with espresso at the end of their meals. The pizza crust—a crucial and elusive art in the pizza world—achieves an unusual quality here because it’s part whole-wheat, and it’s made with natural yeast, with a “mother” dough that has to be refreshed three times a day. The resulting pizza, Bertoglia says as he thumps the dough, is more easily digestible than a pizza made with commercial yeasts. It’s a bit like a Napolitano pizza—large, chewy, with a big border–but not quite as soft.
On my way out of the restaurant, I pass a sumptuous deli and gift boutique that tells the story of a community that makes much more than pizza. Cheeses, cured meats, wine, pastries, olive oil, and other quality foods are all made at San Patrignano (SanPa), a campus covering 642 acres that includes farms and vineyards, and where some 1500 residents and 300 staff currently reside. Another room in the boutique features high-quality leather goods and finely-spun shawls and scarves, all with the SanPa logo: a tree of life. SanPa is also renowned for breeding horses and dogs, fine woodworking, graphic arts, and other sophisticated crafts. The income from the residents’ efforts covers about 60 percent of the community’s operating budget of 27 million euros (just over 30 million dollars). The rest is made up by donations to the private non-profit organization, some of which come from billionaire Italian patrons.
SanPa is unlike other rehab centers in the world for a variety of reasons. First is the length of stay, which is three and a half years. By contrast, the average stay in a rehab center in the United States, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, is 28 days. Second, unlike most rehab methods, SanPa doesn’t rely on therapists, substitute drug treatment, 12-step programs, or religion. Instead, it treats addiction less as a medical problem than a community problem, where an individual’s lack of self-esteem and destructive tendencies can be changed by becoming a members of a big family, Italian-style, participating in work and education for the common good. (For an intimate sense of this culture, see our documentary short,“The Philosophy of Bello, in our sidebar column.)
Third, the entire program is free to the residents and their families. While this is costly up front—$48,000 per resident year, including food, lodging, medical, and education and training costs—it saves taxpayers enormous sums over the long run. SanPa’s directors estimate that its program saves the Italian government 23 million Euros each year (or about $27.5 million) in costs it would otherwise spend on incarceration or governmental rehabilitation.
And fourth, unlike other rehab centers that sell their wares, SanPa doesn’t produce crafty tchotchkes; it is dedicated instead to the production of high-quality goods that are sold to top Italian restaurants, fashion houses, and architects. According to SanPa’s philosophy of rehabilitation, fine craftsmanship is essential to building self-esteem, and that ensures not only the residents’ success but also the program’s sustainability. And each craft sector seems to develop this idea its own way.
Every resident commits to the full three-and-a-half-year residency. During this time they aren’t paid for their work, but they learn a trade and may get a university education.
San Patrignano was founded 40 years ago Vincenzo Muccioli, by a hotelier who inherited a 200-hectare estate and wanted to do something about the drug addicts he saw in nearby Rimini. He began inviting addicts to his San Patrignano estate for Christmas, and then started bringing addicts home to live with his family. Eventually, he founded an informal alternative medicine free clinic at their weekend farm, and then began building the community.
Muccioli had no training as a psychologist or addiction specialist when he started the center; he was a messianic do-gooder with New Age interests. But he had a clear idea that the best way to treat drug addiction was to make addicts feel like they were part of a community that depended on them for its well-being. He and his wife invited addicts to live in San Patrignano on three conditions: They had to stop all drug use, they couldn’t ask for money from the government, and they had to choose among different income-producing activities to make SanPa a self-sustaining community. Instead of traditional therapy, inmates talked while they worked. Eventually, medical and psychological facilities were added on campus for a few residents, but the model was based on a feeling of belonging and working that raised self-esteem.
Soon, addicts in sleeping bags began to camp in line outside San Patrignano for weeks, awaiting a coveted spot in what was then akin to a hippie commune, where everything, from the buildings and chairs to the cheese and wine, was made by the residents. In the 1980s, when few clinics would care for patients with HIV/AIDS, Muccioli opened a 40-bed clinic for them at San Patrignano; several people with AIDS are still in residence.
Muccioli, who died in 1995, had powerful friends who funded his project: he’d been in a meditation group with Gian Marco and Letizia Moratti, billionaire oil industrialists who ranked among the wealthiest financiers in Italy, and who bankrolled San Patrignano from the start, encouraging other aristocratic (and often right-leaning) Italians to contribute to their foundation. Gian Marco died in 2018, but Letizia continues to help govern SanPa; she has also been mayor of Milan and the first female president of the RAI, Italy’s public broadcasting company. This network of high-ranking political and business friends has helped give San Patrignano tax breaks and other financial benefits, forging collaborations with top Italian designers, chefs, architects, and fashion brands.
From the start, Muccioli made his own rules, and while he was beloved in the community, he was also attacked by some ex-residents and the media for being a dictator, and for his unconventional methods, which in the 1980s occasionally involved harsh punishments and violence (the rationale was that drug addiction inevitably caused death, and so they used whatever means necessary to save lives). In one scandal, Muccioli was accused of covering up the beating death of a resident, planting heroin on the corpse and claiming the death was an overdose; he was convicted but did not serve time–again, because of powerful political allies.
Since Muccioli’s death, San Patrignano has been reorganized into a more conventional non-profit structure with several boards of governance and oversight, and a network of community ties throughout Italy, and the scandals have ceased. SanPa now downplays its history, which is absent from its website, and instead focuses on the future, collaborating with several European groups to work on expanding its model of rehabilitation to other countries.
Today, San Patrignano, situated atop a hill above Rimini, looks more like a modern, well-endowed college campus than a commune. And while SanPa has a reputation for being a closed community, the family immediately opened its doors to a visiting journalist.
Antonio Tinelli, who until recently was the president of San Patrignano, and who entered the program as a cocaine-addicted financial trader (almost everyone who works at SanPa was once a resident there), says that over the years, the community has learned from its mistakes. “There was a time when we had a lot to learn, and there were moments during the 80s when drugs were difficult to combat, and it looked like they were going to win,” he says. “After trial and error, San Patrignano has built a structure that helps drug addicts find solutions and survive in the midst of all the challenges and difficulties of their lives.”
When he first arrived, Tinelli was sent to work with the center’s various animals; one of Muccioli’s beliefs was that working with animals, whether horses, dogs, or farm animals, could help addicts calm down and give them an opportunity to connect with, and be responsible for, another living being. “They asked if I liked animals, and I said sure, thinking about cats and dogs,” Tinelli recalled. One of the first jobs the slick financial trader was confronted with was midwifing a calf. “There I was, covered in everything that comes out of a cow giving birth, holding a tiny calf in my hands, and I knew it was more than a metaphor. This, here, is a new life.”
Tinelli explained that when new residents arrive, each is assigned a “guardian angel,” someone who is a year ahead of them in recovery, to act as a guide; they live, work, eat, and sleep alongside each other, providing constant peer support. The residents work in “sectors”– woodworking, textiles, graphic arts, baking, animal husbandry, wine, and many others–with people they eat and live with as a family. Every resident commits to the full three-and-a-half-year residency, during which time they learn a trade and may get a university education. They aren’t paid for their work while they are in the community, but the products they make help support their stay, which is free.
During the first year, the residents (they are called ragazzi inside the community, which loosely translates to “guys”) are allowed no contact with family except via hand-written letters. Men are housed separately from women, who are 20% of the residents. For the entire stay, the ragazzi have no access to cell phones or the Internet. (“The real detox,” as one told me.) San Patrignano claims that, upon release, nearly 90 percent of its residents are employed through its network of trade and community partners, and that 70 percent stay sober in three-year follow-up surveys conducted by the University of Bologna—impressive statistics in this field. While data on rehab success, including SanPa’s, is hazy at best, the best centers in the US claim only a 30 percent rate of recovery.
To understand its success, I toured San Patrignano to talk with some of the residents. From the administrative offices, with its large graphic design lab, I walked along a muraled alley wafting with breezes of something good in the oven. When I ducked into the bakery and watched the ragazzi shaping loaves of bread and mixing up cookie dough, I immediately noticed a lighthearted atmosphere—the guys comfortably joking with each other as they kneaded vast quantities of dough.
In addition to all the bread for the community, and monthly birthday cakes for the residents, the bakery sector makes cookies, breads, and 35,000 buttery fruit-filled panettone at Christmas for commercial sale outside. When one of the guys, arms covered in tattoos, offered me samples, the quality was immediately apparent. The fig and walnut cookie was moist, chewy, and crispy at the same time. A corn and orange biscuit was both flavorful and delicate. No ordinary cookies, these.
Between bites, I chatted with Gregory Raimo, an Italian-American from New Jersey who had the tough-guy looks and voice of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. His arms and chest were covered in rough tattoos. “I’ve done a lot of damage,” he said, and indeed, I wouldn’t want to meet those piercing blue eyes on a street corner at night. “Jail, rehab, nothing helped. In the United States, you get eight days detox, then a month of rehab—it’s like an oil change. You go back outside and go right back to drugs and the life you were living before.”
Desperate to find help for his drug problem, Raimo had to search beyond the U.S. He came to Italy when his Italian grandparents suggested San Patrignano as a final option. (While the program is technically open to foreigners, entry can be tricky for Americans to obtain. Among other things, it requires a three-year medical visa for a program that, by U.S. standards, is not accredited.) For Raimo, communal living was a big change. “Back home I minded my own business. Here, everybody knows if you have a problem,” he said. “It’s not easy, but if it was easy, it wouldn’t work.” I asked him if would be interested in going into baking when he leaves. “I’m not big on cookies, to tell you the truth,” he said, flashing a warm smile. “But I’ve learned a lot about organizing here. I’m good at organizing. I figure if I finish this, I can do anything.”
Next door, I entered the “Design Lab,” a textile studio where I found 40 mostly young women at work. The room on the left was filled with sewing machines, and on the right, giant, old-fashioned wooden looms. Each had a spread of colorful yarn, and the women sat in twos operating the looms, passing the shuttle under the threads. There was a quiet, regular rhythm of work in the room.
Claudia Corazza, a woman in her fifties who was helping a colleague thread a large loom, arrived at San Patrignano when she was 18, an alcoholic and addict. “At that time, it was all mud and country living,” she said. The weaving sector is one of the oldest at SanPa, initially taught by a woman who was a master weaver. “She was a little nonina—a grandmother—who showed us the basics, and she was glad to pass along what was a dying tradition,” Corazza said.
From the start, SanPa invited older artisans to teach. Many had done their life’s cycle of work and wanted to transmit their skills to another generation. The workshops taught by the artisans–weavers, Michelin-starred chefs, cheesemakers, winemakers, designers—created a foundation for SanPa to preserve those artisanal traditions. “Our ragazzi learn to make something that isn’t slap-dash or just okay or good enough, but something with their hands, passions, and originality,” said Tinelli.
Slow, deliberate work like weaving, he said, can help replace the immediate cravings of drugs. “Gradually, they learn that satisfaction isn’t immediate, but longer, and more beautiful and profound. It comes from sacrifice and discipline, and the ragazzi have a sense of filling the emptiness inside, and of discovering a passion for life and quality.”
Corazza, for example, took a course in weaving at SanPa, worked in the sector for years, and then stayed on to help others. Designers and others in the fashion world still visit. “It’s a constant transmission of knowledge,” she said.
Lisa Carrara, threading the loom with Claudia, has been at SanPa for over six years. “My parents brought me here, against my will, but I kept going,” she said. After her three-year rehabilitation, she stayed on as a teacher. “Weaving helps you concentrate, and it gives you something to do. Sometimes you talk, and sometimes you take a moment to cry.”
“Also,” Corazza pointed out, “you learn mathematics.” Figuring out measurements and quantities of yarn for weaving takes a good deal of calculation.
The women tell me that working in the all-female weaving sector helps the young women, most of whom have been raped or have prostituted themselves in order to get money for drugs. Almost all of them have suffered some form of violence and abuse. In contrast, the weaving workshop radiates calm, offering a safe place for women to untangle their feelings and experiences.
With one touch, it was easy to tell that everything is made of the finest cashmere, silk, or linen. I couldn’t resist a baby blanket-soft cashmere shawl for $140; similar items destined for Chanel will retail for $1,200.
The weaving is still based on the techniques of the nonina, but updated with new technology. There are nine looms in the weaving sector, ranging from 1.5 meters to 3 meters wide; each is equipped with 24 heddles–the wire cords that the thread passes through to create a weaving against the warp thread. Where older looms required a lot of pedals, which lifted shafts that determine a textile’s design, a computer now operates those shafts. The computerization allows for more complicated designs, and fewer mistakes, but the actual weaving is still done by hand; each weaving, which is turned into a shawl, clothing, or a throw, takes two to three days to produce.
The weaving sector works on commission from fashion houses such as Chanel, Ferragamo, Brunello Cucinelli, and Zegna, as well as making San Patrignano-branded scarves and shawls that they sell to the public. At the workshop’s entrance, an armoire displays samples for sale. With one touch, it’s easy to tell that everything is made of the finest cashmere, silk, or linen. I couldn’t resist a baby blanket-soft cashmere shawl in cloud blue with a dark border for $140; similar items destined for Chanel will retail for $1,200.
“When you make something this beautiful,” Corazza said, holding a shawl to her cheek, “you feel better about yourself because you created it.”
At precisely 12:30, the residents headed to an enormous dining hall, which can seat 1200 people at long wooden tables, where the residents eat with others from their sectors. A wide arc of floor-to-ceiling windows shows off hundreds of acres of vineyards outside. Before eating, everyone in the room stands for a moment of silence. “It’s a moment to offer thanks, or to reflect,” said Tinelli. “It is not religious, but it can be.” Many of the residents crossed themselves, then everyone sat.
White-coated waiters listed the lunch choices, served in the Italian style—a pasta primi, followed by a main dish. Everyone takes turns working as a waiter and serving others, rotating during the month. Like everything else at San Patrignano, most of the food was grown and processed on the premises. In this large, industrial dining room, I was stunned to find my plate of pasta was steaming and perfectly al dente, with creamy home-made ricotta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.
“We’re preserving and transmitting Italian culture, in which the idea of eating with a family is very important,” said Tinelli. Until recently, in accordance with Italian tradition, everyone was allowed one glass of San Patrignano wine at lunch and dinner, but because many are alcoholic and had problems with the wine, now they drink water. After lunch, also in keeping with Italian rhythms, everyone takes time to nap or relax before getting back to work later in the afternoon.
That afternoon, I visited the leather sector, where residents stitch San Patrignano-branded handbags, and produce others for Italian fashion houses, including the high-end leather company Tod’s, whose owners and designers have come to SANPA to offer workshops. Each person was at a station, sewing zippers, cutting leather, or hand-stitching. Unlike at a commercial leather workshop I visited in the United States, the atmosphere was cheerful and talkative. Interestingly, this is one of the few sectors where men and women work together.
Why don’t we see SanPa’s model across the U.S.? “We’re living in a world where everyone wants things cured in five minutes, shoot everybody up with drugs so we don’t have to worry about whether we can change their lives,” says Mimi Silbert, the founder and longtime president of Delancey Street. “People are terrified to do long, hard things.”
I was struck by how diverse this group was—in age as well as life circumstances. When I asked Tinelli how someone like him–bright, educated, making piles of money as a financial trader—was able to bond with homeless heroin addicts and people with misspelled prison tattoos, he said it wasn’t easy at first. “San Patrignano taught me one of the most important things I lacked: humility.”
Marco Castelli, a 43-year-old Italian with a scruffy beard who was painting the edges of some pebbled calf leather that would become a luxury handbag, learned that lesson the hard way. Castelli is an engineer by training, and he used to work at the Italian fashion house Gucci, living a fast lifestyle fueled by copious amounts of cocaine. In a story familiar to most addicts and their friends, the more Castelli used, the more of his stylish friends dropped away; soon he was left isolated, working long hours to support his habit. At a certain point, his income couldn’t cover his drugs, and he found himself begging for money from his friends and parents. One by one, they turned away from him. Eventually he lost his job, his home, his friends, and his savings in pursuit of the next line of coke.
“After 23 years of abusing drugs, I decided I needed a change,” said Castelli, who has spent over two years at SanPa. “I had two separate roads in front of me, and only one of them was life.” Now he spends his time teaching his Gucci design sense and standards to fellow addicts in the leather workshop.
At one work table in the leather sector, women were stitching together stuffed animals made with real fur for the luxury market. One woman in her 50s, Roberta (who preferred not to use her last name), had a face etched with the lines of a hard life. A former accountant, she became a heroin addict. After revolving in and out of two rehab centers, she was clean from heroin but separated from her husband and had turned to alcohol. “San Patrignano was like the last beach,” she said. It took a big commitment to stay in; she recently missed her daughter’s wedding. But she said she is content, and somewhat amazed at her luck. “I could never have imagined this place. We get good food, a place to stay, and friends. Demonstrating a fur rabbit with evident pride, she said, “This place is beautiful, and we make these beautiful things.”
A couple of tables over from Roberta, Kyra (who also did not want to use her last name), a woman in her early 20s who has spent two years here, was stitching wallets. An American from a celebrity family, she has dark hair, wide green eyes, and prep school elocution. “My aunt’s friend was a friend of the founder, and she asked if I could enter,” she said.
Kyra started taking pills on weekends as a child for fun, and the habit escalated, especially since her parents were rarely present. She’d been a debutante and interned at a famous fashion house; her Instagram feed prior to San Patrignano reveals someone who was a rich, partying, hot mess. “I had no morals when I arrived here,” she said. “I didn’t know what a relationship was. I had to learn to listen to people. San Patrignano has transformed me.”
Despite her upbringing, with housekeepers and nannies, Kyra doesn’t see the labor of stitching wallets as drudgery. “I’m passionate about fashion, and studied it, but I never thought I could use my hands to create something,” she said. “Instead of going into fashion as a business, now I want to go into design. I’ve been able to learn about leather, which is complex.” Kyra has also taken courses in the textile sector, adding to her education in the hands-on side of fashion, which she took for granted before. “I came from a very fast-paced lifestyle, and this work, learning a skill, and these people have saved my life.”
The most unusual craft workshop in San Patrignano’s design lab produces hand-painted wallpaper, or carta da pareti. When I visited, two ragazzi spread a thin, gluey mixture on long rolls of paper, which then went into a kiln to be cured. When the paper came out, it was painted with one or more of three methods: stencils, silk-screen, or hand-painting with brushes. One of the guys in the workshop, a 36-year-old named Diego, paged through a sample book of wallpaper with geometric patterns, faux parquets, and marble inlay, damask, chinoiserie, and floral motifs that looked like they’d adorn the walls of palaces and Italian villas: in fact, they do, along with decorating yachts, luxury hotels, restaurants, and boutiques.
Hand-painted wallpaper–a single panel starts at thousands of dollars and may take 100 hours to paint–is a rare craft these days. Imported to Europe from China in the 18th century, the art form became popular among Italy’s aristocracy. The late Renzo Mongiardino, one of the country’s best-known designers of commercial and residential interiors as well as film sets, was a master of using hand-painted wallpaper to create illusion—Moroccan tilework, drapery, frescoes, floral motifs. He designed homes for the uber-wealthy, as well as for directors including Franco Zeffirelli. Early in SanPa’s history, he also brought his teaching skills to the community.
The difficulty with this wallpaper, since its colors are mixed and painted by hand, is achieving consistency over an entire wall. “You have to throw out a lot of pieces,” said Diego. “It may take a year to do one large job. You need patience.” Diego says he loves working with wallpaper, but once he’s out of San Patrignano, he isn’t sure he’ll find work in the field. “Hand-painted wallpaper is a very restricted art,” he said. “But I’ll find something using these painting and design skills. It’s become a passion.”
San Patrignano has now spread to three satellite centers, one in London and two in Italy, and it participates in world conferences on rehabilitation, partnering with other like-minded programs in Europe. Given that more than 72,000 people died of drug-related deaths in the U.S. last year, and more than 8,000 in Europe, many people have studied SanPa to determine if the model could work elsewhere. But it’s not easy to replicate.
The closest relative to SanPa in the United States is Delancey Street, a San Francisco-based rehabilitation program for violent criminals and drug abusers that has a similar approach. Mimi Silbert, founder and long-time president of Delancey Street and a criminal justice expert, praised the Italian program, which she called a “sister organization.” Like SanPa, Delancey Street rejects traditional therapeutic approaches in favor of making the addict feel like an important participant in a community, and accountable to its members.
At Delancey Street, which has expanded from its San Francisco home to six other treatment centers around the country, residents run a restaurant, a moving company, and make some furniture and crafts. The cost of a Delancey Street residency, which typically runs for about four years, is approximately $30,000 a year–close to the $48,000 cost of a San Patrignano residency. However, like SanPa’s directors, Silbert argues that this expense ultimately saves on public costs for repeat incarcerations, to say nothing of superficial prison rehabilitation programs that usually fail, imposing further costs on society. But Delancey Street’s model is not widely replicated, either.
“The reason they don’t end up replicating us is primarily because of money,” says Silbert. “In Italy, they have a great donor. We don’t, so we have a great struggle–but a willingness to struggle.” She says most treatment programs fail because they are short-term, partly for reasons of money and insurance, and don’t provide residents with the sense of support and family they need.
“Instead of taking people who have messed up their lives and treating them as these poor people who need our help, we search for their strengths and develop them,” said Silbert. “Making crafts develops those strengths, lets them be creative, gives them something to be passionate about, and teaches them to rely on each other in order to work together. In the process they discover their own self-reliance,” she said. But few programs have the resources or patience to try such an approach.
“Right now, we’re living in a world where everyone wants things cured in five minutes, shoot everybody up with drugs so we don’t have to worry about whether we can change their lives,” she said. “We’re living in a time when people are terrified to do long, hard things. Change takes a long time, but it’s worth it.”
Another factor that makes SanPa difficult to replicate is its very Italian-ness; it grew in a country where the history and value of craft is woven into the fabric of society. One Australian team visiting SanPa concluded, “San Patrignano is un-replicable in its entirety, due to its history, its scale, its location, and the Italian culture in which it is situated.”
Lucia Rughi, SanPa’s communications director, is married to one of founder Muccioli’s sons, Giacomo, who has become a veterinarian. “Our philosophy,” she says, “is the education of bello.” Within that philosophy, the process of understanding and working toward beauty is the only means to combat the ugliest expression of self-loathing: addiction.