No matter the time of day – whether you’ve just stopped in for a quick lunch or you’re taking your time over a leisurely dinner – chances are good that, before you leave, owner Arken Elhicheri will stop by your table to ask how you’re enjoying your meal. You can hear traces of a French accent when he speaks.
So why, you might ask yourself, is he running an Italian restaurant?
Good question, and one whose answer goes a long way toward explaining Garibaldi’s unique appeal. The son of French and Italian parents, Elhicheri grew up in Paris and went to school in Montreal. Those roots are reflected in the restaurants he has owned or managed since moving to the Triangle, starting with the French Tartine’s back in the mid-’90s. He has since worked in a number of Italian establishments, including Gianni & Gaitano’s and, briefly, local landmark Amedeo’s.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Italian restaurant he opened in June in Fuquay-Varina is named for the French-born Italian general who played a key role in the formation of the modern nation of Italy. Or that Elhicheri couldn’t resist sprinkling the menu with just a soupçon of French fare, from crème brûlée to nightly specials such as grilled whole Mediterranean bronzini with pommes frites, and steak au poivre with potatoes au gratin.
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In charge of the actual sprinkling is executive chef Robert Sumber, a veteran of 27 years in kitchens from New York to North Carolina.
Sumber first impressed Elhicheri when the two worked together at Gianni & Gaitano, and more recently at Bolt Bistro in downtown Raleigh. It isn’t hard to see why. The versatile, classically trained Sumber is equally at home whether he’s cooking French onion soup or minestrone.
And what a minestrone it is, enriched with grated pecorino Romano, and so thick with cannellini beans, pasta and assorted vegetables that it’s practically a stew. Fried calamari are a keeper, too, served in a shareable pile of tender rings and tentacles tossed with a handful of sliced cherry peppers that have been fried in the same light breading for a snappy counterpoint.
Mussels – cooked in white wine with saffron, garlic and just a splash of cream – are another first-rate starter option. They’re a bargain at $9.25 for two dozen plump PEI mussels. You’ll want a spoon for that broth.
The chef knows his way around a pizza oven, too, consistently turning out New York-style pies with a blistery, crisp-tender crust. Choose from three dozen toppings, or opt for one of the specialty pizzas – the Quattro Formaggio, say, which gets a post-baking shower of wild mushrooms and arugula and a drizzle of truffle oil.
The entree offerings cover familiar pasta-seafood-chicken-veal territory, for the most part, with occasional detours for creations such as costoletta di Carolina. An Old World nod to Elhicheri’s adopted home state, the dish features a double cut pork chop with caramelized pears, crumbled gorgonzola and a cider reduction, with rosemary potatoes au gratin on the side. I’d order this one again, but I’d ask that the chop be cooked a little less than the medium-well I was served the first time.
But I wouldn’t change a thing about the lasagna, with its layers of meaty ragu, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, béchamel and egg noodles that develop a toothsome crunch at their ends from baking in an individual oval gratin dish. Or the textbook spaghetti and meatballs (three of them, nearly as big as tennis balls, made with a well-seasoned classic blend of veal, pork and beef) in a traditional “Sunday gravy” tomato sauce.
Or chicken Sorrentino: two moist breast cutlets stacked with prosciutto, eggplant, fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers, rising out of a puddle of “cherry tomato sauce” whose translucent brick red color belies its rich flavor.
And I certainly wouldn’t skip dessert. I’d give a slight edge to the moist, Kahlua-sprinkled and cocoa-dusted tiramisu over the crème brûlée, whose custard can on occasion flirt with curdling.
Taking its cue from the menu, Garibaldi’s casually romantic decor – colorful impressionist paintings of Venice and Naples on walls the color of sun-washed terra cotta, booths with sea foam green upholstery, a rustically cozy bar – is equally suited to a first date or a family meal.
It’s a fine place to stop for lunch, too. A flatbread with fig jam, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and gorgonzola, say, or a lunch portion of house-made gnocchi bolognese. Add a salad or cup of soup if you like. The trick will be deciding between French onion soup and minestrone.