After spending a fruitless 10 minutes trying in vain to get the bartender’s attention, the hostess moped miserably up to me and my two companions and asked if all four of us were there yet. No, I told her, the fourth was parking. At which point, and without saying another word, she turned around and walked away.
Did this mean we should follow her to our table? Or report back when our fourth had finally arrived? Maybe we should leave with our heads hung low in shame? We were given no indication.
This interaction was the first omen of what was to come at this pulsating embodiment of every stereotype ever (inaccurately) applied to the Big Apple and its restaurant scene. Some of the incompetence, the brazenly insouciant attitude, the grotesque sense of self-importance and utter fabulousness that permeates this deafeningly loud, perennially packed space might have been forgiven had the food or drink been remotely in line with the prices—or, for that matter, with the standards of a mediocre home cook. But as far as I can tell, the primary raison d’être of this Dantean mess in Rittenhouse Square is to see and be seen, to ogle and be ogled.
But for all the high-school-cafeteria vibe, for all the preening and breast-adjusting and hair-fixing, few people I saw looked terribly happy when faced with the food they’d ordered. It’s tough to look sexy when you’re eating poorly and spending a fortune in the process.
Disconcertingly chewy home-baked bread was served with a minuscule bowl of olive oil. And don’t get me started on the wine at Serafina: the by-the-glass markups are utterly insane, especially considering the fact that they’re served in embarrassingly cheap stemware filled to within an inch of the rim.
Also, it’s August in one of the greatest places on the planet for tomatoes. Why, then, was every one I tasted here so industrial in character, imported from Italy by the same firm Serafina uses for all its locations?
Veal-chop Milanese was topped with a sad, flaccid-leafed salad with little discernible acid and mealy little cubes of pale tomatoes the texture of stale Wonder Bread. The veal itself had been pounded out and fried into a thin, dry board that looked like home plate at the Cit somewhere around the fifth inning—the meat by the bone was raw, and the unappetizingly pale pink of cheap sushi.
Gnocchi di Mamma should shame whichever “mamma” it’s named after. The gnocchi were workable if a touch too glutenous, but any chance they had of delivering even a modicum of pleasure was undermined by the sad, wrinkled cherry tomatoes scattered throughout, the skins sliding off into plastic-textured leaves, the sauce devoid of any discernible seasoning.
Same with the farfalle: At Serafina, it seems, salt is about as integral to pasta water as subtlety is to the The Real Housewives of New Jersey . Still, at least the shrimp on that plate were well-prepared: Modest little curled-up fists of real suppleness and sweet flavor. (On a side note, though those gnocchi are made in-house, most of the other pastas are produced in a New York facility that pumps them out for all the Serafinas.)
Lobster, however, didn’t fare nearly as well. The lobster “carpaccio” appetizer was centered on a plateful of thin-sliced, overcooked lobster meat that had been brazenly splattered with an unappealing Jackson Pollock of “Champagne sauce,” essentially a house-made mayonnaise flavored with champagne and mustard. That poor crustacean died in vain. The corn, arugula and heart of palm salad at the center provided some sense of life to the dish, but not nearly enough. At $19, tasting the lobster itself seems to be, you know, kind of important.
Beef carpaccio was just as underwhelming, a joyless plateful of mealy, generic-tasting filet mignon with what was supposed to be sauced with truffle, but wasn’t. A parsley-bright salad was a welcome respite, but the grit I chomped through in my second forkful diminished any modicum of pleasure it might otherwise have provided.
Even more casual dishes on this dangerously expansive menu failed to rise above all but the lowest limbo-bar of expectations. Bresaola pizza arrived a soggy disappointment, the fontina oily, the arugula salad bland. Calamari was well-fried, but the rings themselves had been purchased frozen and therefore destined to a life-sentence of rubberiness. In a final insult to tomatoes everywhere, the dipping sauce tasted like the unholy offspring of Ragu and a tin can.
Your best bet, then, is to go for a cocktail (if you can get the bartender’s attention), a dessert or two (the panna cotta was serviceable and the profiteroles are enjoyable as long as you like gobs of Nutella), and, with luck, some hottie’s digits. But a solid meal at fair price is not what this place is about.
When I lived in New York, I always felt as if Serafina was a more than reliable option for a decent meal out. And the team behind it, Fabio Granato and Vittorio Assaf, have a solid track record in New York. This outpost, however, seems to be little more than an aggressive, incompetent exercise in cynicism. How could so much have been lost in translation?
130 S. 18th St.
Cuisine: Mediocre Italian.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-midnight; Sat.-Sun., 11:30am-1am.
Price range: $6.50-$29.
Atmosphere: Aggressively meat-markety, like the after party of a second-rate fashion show.
Dinner with Luke Palladino