Parked on the sidewalk in front of Serena, a Vespa scooter with sidecar bids you to hop in and come along for a gastronomic adventure. Itll be a fun ride, it seems to say. Ill take you to destinations you dont normally get to experience in an Italian restaurant in North Raleigh.
So you hop in (metaphorically speaking, of course; what you actually do is step inside), and the scene that greets you doesnt quite live up to the Vespas romantic promise. Its a pleasant enough space, mind you, casually inviting with louvered wood shutters in the windows and potted plants doing their best to soften the look of brick partition walls. A row of faux stone columns topped with Roman busts suggests (with a little imagination) that the Vespa has taken you to view some ancient ruins. On the back wall, a coal-burning oven (inherited from al Dente, the previous inhabitant of this strip-mall space) flanked by long-handled pizza peels hints at adventure of another sort.
That adventure begins with a departure from the Italian restaurant norm, in the form of a Sicilian flatbread called schiacciata, brought to your table a few minutes after youre seated.
Spangled with herbs and baked in the coal-fired oven to a puffy, blistery turn, its a harbinger of owner Giuseppe Cataldos generosity, which will also include a complimentary cup of the soup du jour (tonight its a delightful lemon-tinged mushroom soup). The bread is also a foretaste of the Cataldo familys native Sicily, whose traditional dishes share menu billing with more familiar Italian-American fare.
Sicilian caponata, a mint-punctuated spread of chopped tomatoes, roasted eggplant and other vegetables served with herbed crostini, is a fine way to start the adventure. So is the islands take on arancini, deep-fried rice balls stuffed with a savory hash of ground beef, green peas and cheese.
Sicilian grilled sausage pinwheel gets its name from the artful arrangement of curled links that arrive so hot that they spurt juices when you pierce them with a fork. Served on a bed of arugula and topped with grilled onion and roasted red peppers, theyre an addictive nibble made to order for one of Serenas 24 draft beers or a glass of chianti from the Italian-leaning wine list.
Tonno crudo, a Sicilian take on tuna sashimi with fresh herbs, ginger, citrus zest, EVOO and black Hawaiian sea salt, can be too salty on occasion. Fried calamari, tender in a light crisp breading, are a better bet for satisfying seafood cravings.
An entree offering of baby cherrystone clams, tossed with tatters of pancetta in a white wine sauce and served over al dente spaghetti, is another keeper. Or you could take the overland route and get the spaghetti with Moorish meatballs (so-called because the Moors are said to have introduced beef to Italy centuries ago).
Indeed, youd need more than one tank of gas to fuel your Vespa-powered exploration of all the available mix-and-match combinations of pasta, sauce and optional topping. You certainly wouldnt go wrong by including Biagia Picchi Pacchiu in your itinerary: a medley of crushed Roma tomatoes, chunks of fresh mozzarella, basil and rosemary paired with, say, ricotta-enriched house-made gnocchi.
John Volkel, who worked his way up from dishwasher at the original Serena in Durham (not included in this review) to chef-partner at the Raleigh location, also has a way with a grill. Tempting options include ahi tuna amped up with a sweet-sour agrodulce served over Sicilian ratatouille; free-range chicken breast over garlicky wilted spinach; and an expertly grilled New York strip steak brushed with olive oil and a touch of Meyer lemon zest.
Coal-fired oven notwithstanding, until a new menu was printed last month you could dine repeatedly at Serena and never know that pizzas were an option. They werent listed on previous menus, and a friendly but widely variable wait staff couldnt be counted on to inform you of their availability.
Whatever the reason, individual coal-fired pizzas are listed on the new menu, with options ranging from classic margherita to Otto (porchetta, roasted red peppers, banana peppers and the Cataldo family recipe mozzarella blend). Judging by a recent sampling of three pies (two of them scoring a blistery-crusted bulls-eye, the third just a shade off the mark), its clear that chef Volkel is well on his way to mastering the notoriously temperamental oven.
The chef does a fine job with desserts, too, with house-made temptations including a classic New York-style cheesecake (with chocolate sauce mercifully restrained to a plate-garnishing drizzle) and a textbook tiramisu thats big enough to share.
So what are you waiting for? Hop in and take Serena for a spin. No helmet required.