On a night that everything could have gone wrong at Serena, a Sicilian-influenced restaurant in North Raleigh, nothing did. The air conditioning was down in the main dining room (due to vandalism according to the wait staff) and guests were being shuffled into another dining space in a conjoining building. Threatening heavy rainstorms battered down as we arrived, thrashing the umbrellas hanging over the outdoor tables.
Still, my dining guest and I elected to “tough” it and dined al fresco in midst of the cool summer’s eve. We were rewarded with a cornucopia of choices—almost too many—from Serena’s extensive menu. Luxurious ingredients found on the menu like the Moorish meatballs and Black Tiger shrimp underscored the Sicilian influences, a wealthy confluence of Italian, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Greek and Mediterranean cuisines.
For those that like to do double-duty as a food architect, diners at Serena could opt to build their own salads and pasta dishes using a bevy of toppings that included the likes of Grilled Octopus, Marinated Portobello mushrooms and Spicy Würstel.
We eased our way in that night with an order of pattati fritti, (French fries) showered liberally with parsley, Kosher salt, Parmesan cheese and garlic and washed it down with a cold pint of Southern Tier Live Pale Ale. For $4.50, the ample portion was worth its weight in crispy potato-ey goodness.
Still, we soldiered on to gorge on the complimentary herb-sprinkled flatbread, perfectly blistered from the coal-fired oven and a dainty amuse bouche of Serena’s zuppa del giorno, a creamy zucchini and mushroom soup that night.
By the time the Americano coal-fire pizza (a personal size but enough to share between two people) arrived, we were almost too stuffed to put down more than one slice of the pie topped with pepperoni, Italian sausage and melted mozzarella cheese. It was too bad, because the pie, at about $9, was quite the quality bargain and tasted much better than the pies at Bella Mia, the coal-fired pizza restaurant in Cary.
Our order of the Baby Cherrystone Clam-sauced gemelli pasta was almost provocative and in the best way possible. The generous portion of al-dente pasta matched the bounty of salty and tangy Cherrystone clams, and the bits of pancetta combined to produce an opulent flavor that almost veered into the neighborhood of umami. My addition of garlic-roasted vegetables and sliced sausage were rendered unnecessary given the deft execution of the original dish.
Service, by all accounts and considering the circumstances that night, was attentive and non-intrusive. At the end of the meal, we were a bit thirsty, an indication perhaps that the fare was a shade saltier than it needed to be.
Nitpicking aside, that night we left Serena with bellies protruded and smiles plastered on our faces. Hitching a ride from the Vespa scooter parked out the front of the entrance was tempting, but given Serena’s proximity to our home, we knew that it probably wouldn’t be too long until we returned.