Ilario Guidu: from prisoner to life coach

Estimated reading time:11 minutes, 2 seconds

Everyone has a story. “I was not the son a mother would want,” admits Ilario Guidu. Here’s how a former drug addict, alcoholic and prisoner is now helping turn around reformed addicts lives thanks to an Arsenal match day burger stall. Interview by Nicola Baird

Ilario Guidu: “I’d stop drinking and taking drugs but then I’d come out of prison and celebrate. But that first pint was not a celebration, it was a return ticket to prison.” (c) islington faces

The wittily named Breakout Café, opposite Pentonville Prison, is where Ilario Guidu wants to meet. But this choice of venue is not just for The Breakout’s honest mugs of tea and good value cooked English breakfasts. It’s more a reminder that Ilario, now 56, has spent a lot of time in Pentonville.

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The Breakout on Caledonian Road, just opposite HMP Pentonville (c) islington faces

“I was born in Italy and came to England, aged 19, for one year to do military service guarding the ambassador. I went back to Italy and managed to finish three years in the military. But when I left the army and went back to my little town. It was very dead and slow. When you’ve been touched by London you get the London life in your blood,” explains Ilario, in a strong Italian accent, after buying me a mug of tea. “I came back to London in 1982, the year Italy won the World Cup. I celebrated in Trafalgar Square! But this time I didn’t have the discipline of the army or family and my life took a very bad turn. I was surrounded with the wrong people. I became addicted to drugs and gripped by alcohol.”

Sadly all this happened in Islington.

“I’ve been an Islington resident most of my life,” says Ilario who now lives in Archway. “As soon as the pleasure disappeared I knew it was wrong: I spent a lifetime using, drinking and trying to stop. It got me in trouble with the law a lot of times. I lived in squalid places. I was sent to prison again and again. Pentonville was my local. I’ve been in and out of it. Prison is not a nice place. Every night they lock the door and you feel it,” he says gesturing to his heart, then adding, “being in prison was kind of healthy. I’d be in for six months, or one year or one and a half years, all small sentences. I’d stop drinking and taking drugs but then I’d come out and celebrate. But that first pint was not a celebration, it was a return ticket to prison.

For a very short time it looked as if his life had turned around when he lives with a “Welsh girl and her one year old daughter in a council flat on Essex Road. But I got arrested and was given a long prison sentence. It turned out to save my life. This last sentence was a hard one. I lost my girlfriend and my friends. They moved me outside London to Coldingley Prison, in Woking and stopped visitors and support. For the first time in my life I felt like a foreigner. The only person who would write to me was my mum.”

But it wasn’t until Christmas at HMP Coldingley that Ilario realised just how alone he was. “I looked at my cards, accumulated over seven years in prison. There were four or five from my mother; four or five from the priest and three or four from my sister. I had no more than 20 cards. I felt sad and wondered ‘Am I a nasty person? If I take away the drugs and alcohol I’m not actually bad.” That was the trigger to help him have another attempt at giving up his poisons by joining a course run by RAPt (Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust) which aims to help people in prison and the community overcome “the grip of addiction and lead positive lives free from drugs and crime.”

“I managed to get clean and stayed nine months without using or drinking. But after nine months I celebrated [in prison]. Straightaway I found that drink and drugs weren’t the same after the 12-step programme. It wasn’t the same good – I felt bad. I knew it was nice when I was clean.”

A month later he asked RAPt for more help and they gave it by reinforcing the 12-step programme. This time it stuck. As a result Ilario can proudly state: “I’ve been clean since 21 November 1996.”

He was released in 1997 when Labour came to power and set about cleaning the prisons. “I didn’t expect to get released. Then I was out the next day and instead of celebrating this time I didn’t buy the return ticket. I had nothing to celebrate. I was outside. I’d been born outside prison. My life started from then. It’s completely opposite from what I had been – and now extremely honest. I don’t buy drugs and keep to total abstinence. My drink is water.”

The Best Grub, set up by Ilario Guidu, and on St Thomas’ Road for Arsenal home games, is run by reformed drug addicts and ex prisoners. It’s a great way to offer a new start, and the burgers (meat and veggie) are good too. (c) islington faces

Former prisoners frequently have problems getting work. That’s why Ilario started up the Casa Tua Catering burger stall, The Best Grub, which has been busily trading on Arsenal match days at the far end of St Thomas’ Road since 2014. “I give people from prisons or recovery background experience in work and how to deal with people, how to serve customers, how to be patient and how to change your life.” He also runs a small business hiring chocolate fountains for weddings and private parties. Around 10-20 people have learnt the basics. There’s a lot for former offenders to learn including “being punctual, on time, training, dressing properly, how to deal with people, how to accept abuse and learning to be there to serve.”

Sue and Ilario serving up the Best Grub. Go and try their burgers on an Arsenal home game day. (c) islngton faces

Ilario’s own break came as a cleaner of a warehouse/festival business in South East London. He’d been working there for two or three months when the owner, Enrico, also Italian, asked why a young man who seemed so responsible was doing a job on the minimal wage. Ilario’s answer was straight: “I’ve just got released from prison. I’m a thief, an addict and will nick everything that’s not nailed down – but I’ve done this 12-step programme and I want to change. I’ve been clean for eight months, but if you want I’ll leave.” Fortunately the owner gave him a chance “I found out later that he had two sons in the same grip,” says Ilario. “He treated me like a son, and I treated him like a father.”

As his business confidence grew Ilario said: “I started to feel I had to give something back. And that’s exactly what he has done for the past 20 years. “I started as a volunteer with RAPt. I went into prison and told my story to inmates. Then I started to give people jobs. It doesn’t always work but there are a few successes. You have to be patient. And firm. People have to know that you are from the same background. Then they think, he’s done it. I can do it too. You don’t need people born with a silver spoon in their mouth and been to university.”


Words that help. (c) Islington Faces

Get clean
The 12 steps is a programme that helps addicts and alcoholics stay sober. To this day Ilario Guidu uses it. “I think everybody should do the 12 steps. It makes you a better person. It stops you thinking of me, me, me. It’s a chance to do something good every day without telling people. And that makes you feel good and connected to the neighbourhood. Here are some of Ilario’s Just for Today ideas:

  • If you are in the supermarket and see that something has fallen on to the floor put it back on the shelves, eg, bagged bread
  • If you are walking along and see an empty bottle put it in the litter bin.
  • Take time to litter pick. Go to the canal with a black bag and collect the rubbish.
  • Say hello to your neighbours.
  • If you’ve got a car give people who need it a lift. (eg, to the allotment).
  • And if these seem a step too far you could always go more regularly to the gym and make friends there – and get fitter.


Ilario Guido: “I think everyone should do the 12 steps.” (c) islington faces

My local
These days Ilario goes once or twice a month to Pentonville, to coordinate AA groups. But it wasn’t so long ago that he actually had the keys for the prison.

“I was a former inmate and I had the keys for Pentonville for five years,” says Ilario with something approaching amazement (if the Daily Mail is reading this, he doesn’t now). Talk to Ilario for long and you’ll find radical ways to change the way UK prisons are run – he’d like to have been the governor – but adds “I’m still an old inmate and some people think a leopard doesn’t change his spots.” Yes, he’s realistic, but Ilario Guidu’s decision to escape drugs and alcohol hasn’t just helped him, it’s also led to him helping many, many people. As Ilario might say,”Grazie!”.

  • The Breakout, 419 Caledonian Road, N7. Café is open 6am-2.45pm Monday-Friday; From 6.30am-1.30pm on Saturdays. Sundays closed.
  • If you’d like to book Casa Tua to run a chocolate fountain, contact the office on 0208 880 2147 or look at the website
  • Ilario wishes to thank the company J M Posner which has donated chocolate to Casa Tua. “They’ve been fantastic donating chocolate. They allow me to go to their shows, and ask that the stall is run by recovering addicts.”



Just for Today

Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do something for 12 hours that would appal me if I felt I had to keep it up for a lifetime.

Just for today I will be happy. Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my luck as it comes, and fit myself to it.

I will strengthen my mind.
I will study I will learn something useful.
I will not be a mental loafer.
I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.

I will exercise my soul in three ways, I will do someone a good turn, and NOT get found out. If anybody knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don’t want to do, just for exercise
I will not show anyone my feelings are hurt, they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

I will be agreeable, I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, talk low, act courteously, criticise not one bit, not find fault with anything, and not try to improve or regulate anybody except myself.

I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests, hurry and indecision.

I will have a quiet half hour all by myself and relax. During this half hour sometime, I will try and get a better perspective of my life.

I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful, and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.


Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via at Thanks to Elena for suggesting this interview with Ilario.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola



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