The Garden – Reservation – 403-233-7654
Gilchrist: Ciccaglione family sticks to traditional Italian fare with latest venture, The Garden
Published on: February 10, 2018 | Last Updated: February 10, 2018 6:30 AM MST
Michael Ciccaglione and his father Mike Ciccaglione pose at their new restaurant, The Garden Cecina & Bar in downtown Calgary Feb. 1, 2018.DEAN PILLING / POSTMEDIA
Mike Ciccaglione opened his first restaurant in Calgary — The Prairie Dog Inn — in Canada’s centennial year. At the time, Calgary’s population was about 335,000, The Husky (Calgary) Tower and the Centennial Planetarium were being built, and Peter Liske quarterbacked the Stamps to first place in the West. (No Grey Cup that year either.)
Ciccaglione had been in the Calgary area for a few years by then, having arrived from Sessano, Italy, in 1962 to work at Hy’s. The restaurant scene was much different at the time with hotel dining, Chinatown, diners and a few independent steak houses ruling the city. Many restaurants were ineligible for liquor licences and if they were lucky enough to have one, likely as not, they would be serving alcohol from official ALCB re-bottled containers.
After a few years with Hy’s, The Westin and Banff’s Voyager Inn, Ciccaglione decided it was time for his own place. So he bought what was then a Mexican place on a quiet stretch of 17th Avenue S.W. The main business was tacos and pizza, a nod to his homeland. Over the next couple of decades, he introduced more Italian dishes, eventually renaming and rebranding the restaurant as the fully Italian Buon Giorno in 1988. A few years later, he sold Buon Giorno to Gabriele Battistessa, who ran it until 2015 when he passed it on to Claudio Carnali and his family. It’s still going strong.
(L to R) Mike Ciccaglione, Chef Sabrino Talbi and Mike Ciccaglione at The Garden. DEAN PILLING /POSTMEDIA
In the meantime, Ciccaglione had embraced his adopted Mexican culture by opening El Molino Foods and manufacturing all sorts of Mexican taco chips and salsas which were distributed across North America. At its peak, El Molino employed over 70 people, manufactured up to 2.7 million kilograms of taco chips each year and won a major award for their salsa at a Las Vegas food event. He sold the company years ago and it’s still going strong, too.
Ciccaglione broadened his restaurant business, acquiring or opening the Pied Pickles, the Royal Duke, Il Giardino and eventually, in 2012, the Black Cat Lounge at 635 6th Ave. S.W. Ciccaglione, now 77 and working with his son Michael, has converted the former Cat into The Garden (403-233-7654), a traditional, red-checkered tablecloth Italian restaurant. The Garden is open weekdays for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Saturdays for lunch and dinner and also focuses on downtown catering. The Garden is now the Ciccagliones’ sole business.
The Garden is a comfortable room seating 120 in booths separated by wrought iron and at tables in both a dining room and a lounge. The menu — pizza, lasagna, linguine alla vongole, veal piccata — is prepared by longtime chefs Marino Colona and Sabrino Talbi and looks very similar to that of Buon Giorno (and to many other traditional Italian restaurants). When this is pointed out to Ciccaglione, he laughs. “I wrote that menu decades ago. And it still works. I like to give people what they like.” Over at Buon Giorno, Claudio Carnali agrees. “We’ve tweaked it a little bit, but it’s what people want.”
Ciccaglione has made a good living serving people what they want. And he’s passed along that tradition to son Michael who is now the host/proprietor of The Garden. Michael started as a busboy at Buon Giorno at 15 and has worked side-by-side with his father since 1991. “My father’s business card has no title on it, but he’s The Boss. He’s retired but he’s always here.” And he’s always on the go. During our brief chat, he’s up and down, greeting new customers, thanking regulars for coming, arranging cutlery on tables. He’s an endless bundle of energy.
Energy seems to run in the Ciccaglione family. Zia Maria, Michael’s aunt, hand rolls all The Garden’s gnocchi. And wants to know what’s going on if it doesn’t sell out. She’s 85 and has no intention of slowing down. And from the looks of it, even after more than a half-century in the business, neither does Mike Ciccaglione.
The Calgary Farmers’ Market (CFM) is taking it on the road with a Valentine’s Day pop-up market at the South Health Campus, 4448 Front Street S.E. On Feb. 14, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., 11 market vendors will set up shop inside by the hospital’s Market Cafe and will be selling fresh flowers, chocolate, nuts, oils, stocks and a wealth of fresh fruits and vegetables.