Remember? Over there is where the bar was. That corner is where you ate your last Radius burger, a 9-ounce patty topped with horseradish sauce, cheddar, and crispy onions that was the only reason you needed to visit the restaurant: born 1998, deceased 2013. And over there were the tables at which power players in well-cut suits took lubricated lunch meetings, and swains wooed serious prospects, and anniversaries and birthdays and other life events were celebrated through the consumption of elaborate, extravagant tasting menus. Seven courses of ruminative chewing really gave the passage of time a chance to sink in.
But in the Financial District, no one clapped their hands and said, "I believe in fine dining." And so its light flickered and its tinkling bell faded, and amuse-bouches of lobster bisque and buttery cuts of beef and waiters who whisked away crumbs with special brushes passed quietly into legend here. Serafina opened in the former Radius space in April, bringing salads and pizza and pasta, better prices and worse cooking.
The first New England branch of a New York-based chain, Serafina is operated by Sterling Group Management, led by restaurateur Seth Greenberg. Brendan Burke, formerly of Greenberg's Bastille Kitchen in Fort Point, is the corporate chef.
It is possible to see what Serafina might be in some of its dishes. A beautifully plated antipasto of octopus — charred into tenderness, accented with fregola, green harissa, roasted red peppers, and pickled butternut squash — is smoky, fresh, full of contrasts. Handmade tagliolini tossed with truffle cream sauce and black truffle is simple and elegant; its more-decadent cousin, ravioli with black truffle and butter, is here too. Fillet of bass is wrapped in thin slices of potato, served over zucchini and leeks, pleasingly light. Such dishes are flavorful, not too heavy, not too fussy.
Then there are the things you might order without complaint. Fried calamari, unremarkable but tender, with a pitcher of thin yet zesty tomato sauce for dipping. Or tartare di Sofia, which features both tuna and salmon, vying for the title of blandest raw fish. Or an acceptable salad of arugula with tomatoes, avocado, and shrimp, marred by crunchy, undercooked cannellini beans.
There is penne alla vodka, the pasta in a plain tomato sauce. "It's one of the most popular things on the menu," says our waitress, sweet, competent, and with the glorious hair of a "Price Is Right" model. Farfalle come in a heavy cream sauce, lightened with lemon and nicely cooked baby shrimp (anything described as having a "touch of" cream or butter on the menu is likely to arrive drenched in it). Steak frites, a rib eye with nice char but little flavor, comes with a cone of fries and a few wan slices of grilled zucchini and pepper. Chicken Milanese features a breast breaded and pounded, somehow, into an anatomically confounding sphere, so it looks exactly like pizza.
As for the pizza itself, it is fired in one of those impressive pizza ovens now de rigueur around town, proving that the best equipment is as able as its operators. Serafina's pies are not bad. The crust has structure, if not enough char. The topping combinations are many, from a simple Margherita to a $25 tartufo nero, a slick of cheese broken up by specks of black truffle. The pizza di Fabio, with tomato, mozzarella, and prosciutto, is good middle ground between utterly plain and overpriced luxury.
It is the accretion of not-badness that is the problem here: so much so-so food on the table. And then there are occurrences of outright awfulness, like the gnocchi di Mamma, leaden lumps that taste like any packaged version, or the rigatoni Bolognese, which ought to be an infallible staple but tastes like barely cooked-off cheap white wine. For dessert, there is the inevitable pizza crust with Nutella, the dough tough beneath the sweet spread. And tiramisu — "like Grandma used to make (maybe better)" — is an unboozy, uninteresting square of sweet, fluffy cake. The women in someone's family apparently were not very good cooks.
Serafina's bar scene is lively, and if the beer list is a snore, the bartenders make a decent Negroni. Servers are forthcoming with recommendations and diligent when dealing with diners who have allergies. The space is handsome in a generic, modern hotel lobby sort of way, soothing neutrals with pops of yellow and designer-approved bric-a-brac. The place is vast, with a downstairs floor for private events and fireside lounging.
Serafina is the kind of restaurant the neighborhood's population ought to flock to. But the dining room isn't full on a Friday night. The post-work crowd downs shots and heads toward what's next. Those who live nearby are eating elsewhere. Serafina is neither affordable enough nor delicious enough to demand return visits. And it is hard to spend time here without recalling Radius — where the bar was, where you ate that glorious burger for $19, a price that seemed hilariously high at the time.
Serafina's burger is $18. "I've never had anyone order it," says our server.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good
★ Fair | (No stars) Poor