Authentic Italian Meets French Finesse

Garibaldi Trattoria attracts serious diners to Fuquay-Varina.

By Spencer Griffith / Photography by Hans Rosemond

For five years, Garibaldi Trattoria has cultivated a following of loyal customers that drive from far and wide to Fuquay-Varina, relishing the restaurant’s array of authentic Italian offerings that carry a bit of French flair. While the southern Wake community may hardly seem a likely landing spot for a menu that includes fare as exotic as escargot, according to Garibaldi owner and veteran restaurateur Arken Hicheri, the town itself has played an essential role in allowing him to craft food in a way that connects him to his European childhood.

garibaldi trattoria owner arken hicheri

garibaldi trattoria owner arken hicheri

The son of a French father and Sicilian mother, Hicheri grew up spending time in the kitchens of Italian restaurants owned by his mother’s family in Paris, where he learned to stretch mozzarella di bufala for pizza, fostering a fondness for preparing food in traditional fashion with a focus on freshness. Whether he is hand-picking the freshest produce and seafood from the market three times weekly or arriving to the Fuquay restaurant at 9 AM each day to begin preparing homemade sauces and stocks, Hicheri does it because that’s what he believes in. “I think the only way to succeed in this industry is to do as much as you can in-house, because that’s how you can guarantee your quality and your bottom-line,” he says.

Despite his budding passion for food, his father forbade him from entering the industry as a teenager due to concerns over the stressful lifestyle—so Hicheri instead went to school in Montreal and studied political science. After earning the degree his father wanted for him—and faxing a copy across the Atlantic as proof— Hicheri found his way back into kitchens, making American and Italian food while soaking up operational wisdom from chains.

In the mid-’90s, Hicheri started his own French restaurant in Raleigh, Tartine’s. He found that customers were often intimidated by the cuisine and the presumed stuffy atmosphere. “People have the misconception [about French food] that it’s expensive and they’re not going to eat enough, or that they’re not going to know how to behave properly,” he offers. “I noticed that America is very comfortable with Italian food, and it’s an everyday thing. They order pizza, and there’s pasta and tomato sauce in their kitchens—it’s just part of the culture of the United States.”

Hicheri was also banking on the willingness of Americans to drive for good food when he chose to open Garibaldi in Fuquay-Varina, hoping that his previous customers from Raleigh would follow him even when he is further away. He already saw growth potential in the town but fell in love with Fuquay, he says, largely because the affordable rent allowed him space to prepare everything in-house.

mascarpone cheesecake

mascarpone cheesecake

Despite the relatively roomy kitchen, there are still plenty of challenges for Hicheri and his staff when ensuring food meets the Garibaldi standard. Veal stock, for instance, takes four days to make. “In order to make it right, we can’t really boil it. We have to let it cook and reduce slowly at low temperature,” he explains. “We also make our own chicken stock and our sauces, so the timing gets really difficult—especially in the winter when we have to schedule literally everything.”

Hicheri is also willing to go to great lengths to source just the right ingredients, even when they’ve fallen out of style. “These days, people eat with their eyes and don’t really taste the food anymore,” he claims, mentioning that consumers may prefer the look of a bright but artificially ripened tomato over that of a slightly bruised, but more flavorful, local counterpart. He can only source the smaller, free-range chicken breasts that he prefers for his chicken piccata recipe from one distributor, and he often finds Long Island middleneck clams to be harvested while still smaller than he desires.

When Hicheri wanted to offer a special Maghreb pizza—which included egg and merguez sausage, reminiscent of what he grew up eating in France—he couldn’t track down the lamb sausages anywhere in the state. “The only way I could get them is through a French guy in New Jersey who makes them, and he’s like the last of the Mohicans—who knows if he’ll even be alive for another five years.” Despite these difficulties, Hicheri believes it’s worth it to offer customers a unique experience and dishes that he can stand behind.

“I like to make sure people are tasting something different,” agrees Chef Cristino “Celso” Saldivar, who cut his teeth in French and Italian restaurants around the New York City area. He still remembers serving up a plate of penne alla vodka nearly 20 years ago—and it so impressed his boss that the 17-year-old dishwasher with self-taught culinary skills was quickly put on the path to becoming head chef.

Since moving to North Carolina four years ago, Chef Saldivar has come to enjoy the creative freedom that he believes comes with Wake County’s mix of transplants and locals. “Down here, you’re free to play with any food you want,” he says, adding that he’s often surprised by what ends up being successful. “I thought ‘Who in Fuquay is going to eat escargot?’”