Late on a warm Seattle night, nothing's as welcome as sitting in a flowered garden, discreet lighting in the shrubbery, the sounds of live music coming from within, the buzz of lively conversations rising around you. Waitresses in black tops and floorlength beige aprons glide by, effortlessly picking up and dropping off plates to contented diners. It's as pretty a scene as you could find in Italy, and it's in Eastlake, at Serafina.
It's been a couple of years since we visited (delicious roast lamb in the photo), and the previous chef, John Neumark, has become an independent wine consultant. Neumark's replacement, Dylan Giordan, is no less ambitious. Serafina puts out a seasonal menu of a dozen appetizers and salads, half a dozen "pasta rustica" and another half-dozen "Specialita della casa," along with a daily fresh sheet: cocktail, soups, cicchetti (Venetian-style snacks), pasta, fish, meat and desserts. There's a separate menu for late-night nibbles (fritters, panino, sausages) in the bar. The wine list goes on forever, with special attention to famous (and pricey) names from Piedmont. And there's a hint of the frantic about Serafina's roster of special events: cocktail tastings, wine tastings, jazz music.
Serafina's owner, Brooklyn-born Susan Kaufman, may admire the charm of the Italian countryside, but you can't learn authentic Italian cuisine from a cookbook. Or teach your staff to reproduce "rustic" flavors, for that matter. In fact, the kitchen seems to suffer from a severe case of "flavor removal." An order of roasted olives was simply microwaved (hot pits!). A dry plate of linguini with prawns and tuna bore no trace of "Sicilian caper sauce." An order of plin (hand-pinched pasta) filled with pork and cabbage arrived in tasteless cream. Oh, a question for Serafina's bartender: how did you remove the taste of Campari from our Negroni?
And yet, Serafina has prospered for a decade, thanks to an ambience that suggests Italian romance. Atmosphere trumps cooking, it would seem, and that's a bitter truth for true believers.