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Giuseppe Cataldo bought his first restaurant for one dollar. Serena, a Spanish tapas-style restaurant located in Research Triangle Park, was leaking money and the owner was tired of keeping it afloat. “We were willing to take a restaurant that everybody said was going to fail,” he says.
Cataldo knew it would require hard work, money and a strong concept to turn the restaurant around. He invested his life’s savings into paying the rent for the space and developing a Sicilian-gastropub menu influenced by his Italian roots.
He was also advised to change the name “Serena” to distance his concept from the failed Spanish restaurant. But at the end of the day, there wasn’t any money left for a new sign, so instead of changing it he embraced it.
“In Italian, Serena is the word for a female who feels serene,” he says. “I had to redefine what the name meant. You come here to feel relaxed after a hard day’s work.”
The gamble paid off. Two years later the success of Serena-RTP prompted Cataldo to open a second eatery, Serena Sicilian Cucina in North Raleigh. And now, just adjacent to the North Raleigh restaurant, he debuted a third space called Serena Society, inspired by a traditional neighborhood tavern—good food and plenty of drinks at reasonable prices.
All in the Family
Cataldo’s savviness in the restaurant industry may not be surprising given his upbringing. He grew up in Endicott, New York and at age 2, he was already a fixture in the kitchen of his immigrant parent’s Sicilian-style pizzeria. However, by the time he graduated from high school, he had no interest in continuing his family’s legacy in the food industry.
“I went to college for pre-med and was about to take the MCATs,” he says. But an unexpected (and perhaps fortuitous) turn of events took him in a completely new direction. He decided to take a theater class and when the professor said he would give an A to any student who agreed to participate in his play, Cataldo raised his hand immediately. He quickly started performing in professional, regional theater.
“I fell in love with theater,” he says. He moved to Manhattan to study acting and convinced famed teacher William Esper to take him on as a student. And like most struggling actors living in New York, Cataldo waited tables at night to pay the bills. He worked at iconic Italian eateries such as Cipriani Dolci and Jimmy’s Downtown.
While working at these high-end restaurants, he discovered that they were making the same hearty Italian food his parents were cooking back in Endicott, just elevating the dining experience. He watched great restauranteurs run their establishments and absorbed as much as much as he could from them. The allure to return to his culinary roots began to call.
Smoke and Mirrors
“I spent the next 15 years working at every top level restaurant in New York and Miami just to get as much experience as I could,” he says.
When it was time to open his own, he knew exactly what he wanted—high-quality Sicilian street food elevated through French cooking techniques, which is exactly what you’ll find at Serena. Signature dishes such as the Arancini, stuffed risotto balls, marinated chicken spiedie skewers, or the Sicilian-style grilled octopus are packed with flavor and beautifully executed.
“I don’t have a taste for food that is smoke and mirrors,” he says. “My food is classic and simple, and I want to sell it at a fair price point.”
He also wants his customers to feel satisfied when they get their bill at the end of the meal. His restaurant isn’t meant for special occasions; he wants to cultivate regular, happy customers, affording them the opportunity to come in several times a week.
In the future, expect Cataldo to open a coal-fire pizzeria. He recently purchased the building across from the original Serena location where he plans to make high-end Italian pizzas at half the price of other similar offerings.
“I want to disrupt the industry,” he adds.
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