After catching a lovely and much needed rest at the historic Twin Gables Bed and Breakfast we set off to explore the immediate neighbourhood, the restaurant area on 4th Street. We were going to walk, but considering I had been really sick with an aweful chest cold in the last few days, venturing out into the cold evening air had me a little leery. Henry from the Twin Gables was really kind to offer us a drive a few blocks up to a restaurant called Il Giardino, one of the places that had come highly recommended for this area from Tourism Calgary.
We entered a Mediterranean-looking restaurant that was just packed with people. We sat down at a cozy table and had a chance to spend some time with the owner, Mike Ciccaglione, and his restaurant manager Dorothy, to find out more about this establishment. Wherever I go I try to get the human stories, and boy, was I in for an interesting one here. I did not realize that I had connected with one of Calgary’s most successful entrepreneurs, a real immigrant success story.
Mike was born in the Italian region of Molise and left Italy when he was 16 years old to study business administration and restaurant and hotel management in Switzerland. He came to Canada in 1962 following which he worked in a variety of hotels and restaurants in Calgary and Banff. He also studied English as a second language. In 1967 he opened his first restaurant called the Prairie Dog Inn which initially specialized in Mexican food.
As if that wasn’t enough, Mike went on to open the Mexican Village chain of fast food restaurants in several shopping malls and in 1980 he opened the «Pied Pickle» chain.
Logically he decided to expand his business to encompass the supply and distribution of tortillas and other Mexican foods: El Molino food manufacturing was born. This company manufacturers Mexican food products as well as pizzas and Italian pasta dishes and distributes its products to warehouses in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.
In 1998 Mike opened «Il Giardino» (the ultimate in Italian food and fun), a restaurant where all the dishes were home-cooked had always been his big dream.
When we walked into this restaurant I had no idea that we we would meet such a successful Canadian entrepreneur. At the same time, you’d never know it – Mike walks around in casual clothing, laughs and smiles a lot and always keeps his eyes open to check on his guests’ enjoyment. During our conversation he got up several times to greet or say goodbye to guests and Dorothy referred to him as a “big flirt”. It is plainly obvious that even at 65 years of age, Mike loves what he is doing and Dorothy told us that he does the rounds throughout his various Calgary businesses on a daily basis. Mike is one of those people who loves his work and always has a twinkle in his eyes.
Dorothy has an interesting story herself: she is originally from Montreal and her husband, an engineer in the oil industry, hails from England. Before Calgary they have lived in Montreal, St. John’s / Newfoundland, as well as Jakarta where they ended up as refugees in Singapore for a month during President Suharto’s coup. Now they settled into a calmer life in Calgary.
Mike attributes his success to a strong commitment to quality ingredients and preparation, and he credits great support from his wife Lucy, his daughter Judy and his son Michael Jr. for much of his fortune and he hopes that one day his children will take over. He also recognizes the importance of his employees as a critical success factor. He told us that he feels it’s very important to reward his employees and many of the staff at the Il Giardino Restaurant have been there 10 and more years. A young couple, the evening manager and the hostess, have 15 years of service (5 years at Il Giardino and 10 years at the Pied Pickel) between them and Dorothy confirmed that people really enjoy the work here. Mike says «You’re nobody until people make you somebody», that’s why treats his employees well and appreciates his winning team.
The construction of Il Giardino is a story in itself: Mike designed the restaurant and one of his long-time friends, Walter Petrin, did all the brickwork while his other great friend Vic Finot was the general contractor. Every Friday he and these two special friends get together to solve the problems of the world. Strangely enough, the next day the problems start all over again.
Outside of work Mike loves to spend time with friends, some of whom he has known for 40 years now. His family is very supportive of him and his wife dedicates a lot of her time to charitable work. Mike also supports the United Way and various fundraising drives for breast cancer and the Calgary Children’s Hospital.
He still goes back to Italy every once in a while although he says he’s seen almost everything in his home country. So now he is thinking of traveling to places like Asia, Africa and Latin America as long as it is safe and reasonably clean. Mike loves soccer and he even used to own a local soccer team that was called the El Molinos Dinos. Another one of Mike’s big passions is his Ferrari and he said that every once in a while he puts it on sale just to see the interest on the part of potential purchasers. But when it comes down to it he really has no intention of selling it.
But that’s not all: Mike is a movie star as well! He has had roles in «Honey, I Shrunk The Kids» as well as in «Cool Runnings». It seems Mike is always up to something, and when you listen to his list of endeavours it seems incredible that one person can get all this done.
Mike embodies hospitality and while we were there he insisted that we get a real taste of what his kitchen is capable of. For starters we got to sample Il Giardino’s soups: I tasted a Stracchiatelle egg drop soup while my husband got the «Brodo con Polpettine e Pasta» (chicken broth with tiny meatballs and pasta). Then I got to sample a taste of Il Giardino’s famous Calamari (extremely tasty and tender) while Nigel had their Bruschetta bread. We also received a sampler plate of appetizers – Antipasto Italiano (prosciutto with melon).
That wasn’t all: we also got a taste of Il Giardino’s home-made Gnocchi della Nonna which, by the way, are home-made by Mike’s 70 year old sister. Then, we couldn’t believe it, the main course arrived: a sampler plate of three of Il Giardino’s specialties: Pollo ai Funghi (chicken breast in a white wine sauce topped with mushrooms), Piccata al Limone (veal in lemon and white wine sauce), and Agnello al Rosmarino (rack of lamb in a rosemary, mint and red wine sauce). I am not usually a huge meat eater, but these dishes were phenomenal, the meat was tender, the sauces very tasty without being overpowering. Mike topped a fabulous meal off with a tasting of the most famous Italian desert: tira misu.
Without exaggeration, our culinary experience at Il Giardino ranks right up there as one of my best restaurant experiences of a life-time, the food was that delicious. I love Italian food, and the folks at Il Giardino certainly know how to prepare Italian delicacies. We had to take a doggy bag back to our bed and breakfast, there was no way we could actually eat all this delicious food. There is no doubt that Il Giardino serves great, freshly made food. And even more so, it was a pleasure to meet the creator behind this welcoming neighbourhood institution.