On the Waterfront
There are times when eating out is not all about eating.
Which is to say, so much goes into making a restaurant meal the kind of experience that exalts rather than exasperates. It sounds corny to say it, but deep down, we're all hungry for something that goes way beyond pasta and meatballs. We want to be thrilled or soothed or just left alone to talk with friends; we want to be taken care of, but not too much. A perfect meal relies on an orchestrated balance — some ineffable interaction among service, atmosphere, wine, and food that comes together seamlessly. You want it to have a long, smooth finish and no bitter aftertaste. More than expensive ingredients artfully arranged on a plate, more than a waiter who makes sure your glass is refilled, more than flattering candlelight or spotless linen.
"I like being fake-loved," a friend of mine remarked recently when she'd gotten restaurant service that was particularly exacting and cheerful. Fake love, it turns out, is almost as good as the real thing. To some degree, we're all looking to be fake-loved when we dine out, and the funny thing is, fake love tends to generate real love; it creates a space where intimacy flourishes. Italians are particularly good at making this space — they've built a whole culture around it and purveyed that culture across the globe. What the Italians have sold us is an invitation to connect.
I was thinking about this the other night as I sat with friends at Serafina. This Italian trattoria just off Sunrise Boulevard has a vaguely stagy quality that helps perpetuate the illusion of theater, a semblance of unreality that invites contemplation. The dining area is set far back from the street; you enter, past the busy kitchen glimpsed through a storefront window, down a narrow passage that opens into a tiny, candlelit room with just a handful of seats, mostly empty in nice weather, and you wonder where everybody is. It turns out everybody is outside, where tables have been set up on a broad dock above the Middle River.
Walls fall away; the restaurant seems to extend out and become part of the water. It's beautiful, illuminated by flickering torchières and maybe a piece of moon and whatever light is bouncing off the river. I don't know another restaurant that looks anything like this one. I can't think what they do when it rains – here's a magic that can be confounded by a sudden summer shower, to say nothing of hurricanes. Serafina means "fine night" — like a charm to ward off evil weather, and when it's dry, it's the prettiest place I know to eat outdoors. What with the efficient, respectful service and the breeze off the water, the lights of traffic passing over a distant bridge — the kitchen could send out Spam sprinkled with birdseed and you'd have trouble rousing yourself to complain.
Chef Michele Viscosi, who owns Serafina with his partner, Roberto Giolosa, is sending out nothing of the sort, of course. Viscosi and Giolosa took over Serafina two years ago from its previous owner, Shari Woods. Woods had been doing a Mediterranean menu with broad strokes — incorporating Moroccan and Greek influences into Italian. Viscosi, a 35-year veteran who was born in Napoli, and Giolosa, a restaurateur from Montreal, are doing straight Italian now, no chaser. They've paired a lineup of classic dishes from North and South — mussels marinara, carpaccio di manza, pastas, risotto, veal scaloppini, fish soup, and chops — with a reasonably priced wine list of Borolos, Barberas, Amarones, and Chiantis, including a couple of real winners by the glass: a La Vite Lucente Super Tuscan and a light, gently fizzy Brachetto d'Acqui. The menu is simple and pleasant in the style of small, family-run Italian trattorias: There are no pyrotechnics to draw attention away from the gorgeous setting or your companion's conversation. Because the menu is fairly reserved and modest, all the elements at Serafina fall into balance. What you come away with is not just a full stomach but an experience.
What isn't reserved at all, though, are the portions. We could have lived for several days just on our appetizers. Two fist-sized polpette di carne ($9), meatballs in marinara, would have sated Pavarotti. They were beautifully rich and tender, with that silky mouth-feel you look for in a good meatball, and the marinara had the right tart garden notes to set off the meat's wallop. As good a meatball as I've eaten anywhere. Minestrone soup ($8) was a fragrant bowl of lightly cooked greens and vegetables into which a dollop of nutty basil pesto had been stirred — more like the French soupe au pistou than the bean and pasta minestrone you might expect. It was lovely, garlicky — "the best I've ever tasted," one of us announced. Seared giant shrimp (gamberi Serafina, $13) served over sautéed, julienned carrots and zucchini were fresh, muscular, and satisfying — a seaside peasant dish given a royal finish with a flambé of brandy laced with piquant pepper.
Given the size of these appetizers, we could have stopped there. Two of the entreés that followed were simple but excellent: a fillet of salmon ($22) that fell into buttery flakes under the fork, dressed in lemon, capers, and a sauce made from white Zinfandel was delicious and classic. A double-cut French bone-in veal rib chop ($35) had been spice-rubbed, pan-seared, and set in a pool of rich brown pan juices reduced with champagne and butter. Dishes like these inspire trust in a kitchen — they'd been deftly seasoned and cooked to exactly the right temperature.
And that's why our risotto was so baffling. The menu had made a point to say the rice was imported Vialone Nano, an ideal grain for risotti because it's superabsorbent, soaking up twice its own weight in liquid, but still our risotto "tutto mare" ($24) with clams, shrimp, and squid, was bland and dry instead of rich and creamy. It had no flavor from either shellfish broth or seasoning. I wondered if the risotto had been partially cooked earlier, or if the lineup of three or four risottos were just differently costumed versions of the same dish — a bit of seafood added here or mushrooms or cheeses there — instead of individually prepared to highlight their unique personalities. That risotto left us all wishing we'd ordered a plate of rigatoni all'Ametriciana or capellini fra diavolo instead.
Our risotto, it turned out, was the only disappointment of the night, because the desserts that followed were spectacular. I love a good ricotta cheesecake, and the slightly savory version made at Serafina ($7) from the chef's grandmother's recipe was just the thing: not too sweet, gently fragrant with lemon zest, of a beautiful, almost foamy consistency that our waiter explained was tricky to achieve, requiring a tortuous cooling process. The cake almost never came out exactly the same way, he said. But the one we were eating that night was perfect. And so was a layered chocolate and cream mousse ($7), dark semi-sweet against airy white clouds. We couldn't stop eating it.
I've had Italian meals in Fort Lauderdale that were more finessed or creative but none that put together a total evening as comfortable, romantic, and memorable as Serafina. That package explains why Palm Beach millionaires pull up in yachts for lunch, sending the staff scurrying to feed crew and passengers on Italian sausage, poached pears, and salmon roulade; it explains why you need to make a reservation for dinner and why you may have to wait a few minutes once you show up while some earlier diners linger for every pleasurable second over dessert and coffee. Nobody, once they settle in, is in any big hurry to leave this place.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.