A taste of New York’s Little Italy in Tel Aviv

One of Serafina’s owners, Fabio Granato, said they had wanted to open one up a branch Tel Aviv for 20 years.

Serafina (photo credit: AMIR MENACHEM)
(photo credit: AMIR MENACHEM)
Was it the ripeness of the Israeli cherry tomatoes that made the difference in the burrata? Or the “forest mushrooms” found in the Carmel Shuk that populated the mushroom fettucini?
Whatever Israeli accents were brought to the table, they did their job at helping the famed New York restaurant Serafina spread its wings to the Mediterranean.
Serafina is a chain of Italian restaurants that first gained prominence in Manhattan, where it has 11 eateries, which are frequented by the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. The successful endeavor has grown to encompass 37 restaurants around the world, with the new Tel Aviv branch being the first in Israel.
One of Serafina’s owners, Fabio Granato, said they had wanted to open one up a branch Tel Aviv for 20 years.
To get the project off the ground, he and co-owner Vittorio Assaf teamed up with big-time Israeli restaurant owner Yaki Kabir, who is involved with upscale Japanese restaurant TYO and the Haiku Skybar.
Kabir pulled the Serafina Israel team together and sent his Serafina chef Avi Belinsky and the restaurant’s pizza chef to New York for an intensive two month training under Assaf, the creator of all the Serafina recipes, and his top cooking crew. Assaf is the Italian food expert, but it’s Kabir who knows the Israeli palate.
“Vittorio is so professional and he knew from the beginning we need to make adaptations,” Kabir explained when asked about the menu changes at the non-kosher restaurant. “The Israeli is pressured. They are fighters. They eat chili [spice]. For an Israeli, meat and cheese together is not so good.” The menu has seafood on the list, but no pork.
“We had to adapt to the ingredients we find and then to the flavor of what people want to have. More spice. But the rest of the DNA of the menu is the same,” Assaf said.
The restaurant’s location – amid a strip of new eateries and shops in Ramat Aviv – is not central, but the owners love the spot.
“It’s easy to find parking, it’s accessible,” Assaf explained, adding that the north Tel Aviv neighborhood was full of young families.
“It’s the future. They are opening access to the beach at the end of the road,” Granato added with certainty. “There’s a need. Something like this was missing; so we came in the right location where we are welcomed and needed.”
GRANATO IS NOT only Assaf’s long-time business partner, but he’s the top taster. He likes Israeli wines over some others from the region. In Turkey, he won’t even pick up a glass. Granato and Assaf travel the globe together, tending to their 38 businesses, which include eateries and resorts. Granato is the go-to eater. When it came to the risotto, Assaf revealed Granato forced him to cook it 26 times. The first 25 just did not make the mark.
During a recent visit to Serafina, Assaf did not stop working the entire evening. When the mushroom risotto came out of the kitchen too soon after the burrata and artichoke appetizers, he followed the waitress to the side and politely reminded her that the appetizers should be cleared before a hot dish is served.
He was a true professional. Tasting every item on the menu, the longtime chef and man of the hour held a series of oversized note cards in his hands. Each had a different item from the menu handwritten on it in big bold words along with the precise ingredients found in each of the dishes on the menu.
When a question came up about which kosher Israeli wine was a best-seller at his West 77th Street location in Manhattan, he politely stepped away from the table for a chat with his colleague in the US and came back with the name of the brand written on a napkin. It was the Tsora Vineyard in the Judah Valley – and he offered the name of another – the Mystic Hills winery from the Golan Heights. Both, he said, get 99 points out of 100 on the scale. Assaf’s restaurants are not kosher, but so much of his New York clientele are Jewish, that he has adopted kosher Israeli wines to the menu — but only the best.
When asked how he was dealing with the notoriously bristly Israeli service industry, Assaf said that the Israeli staff worked together very well and did quite a good job. “There is major unity here, the energy of people is together. It’s incredible,” he said.
When the main dish came, Assaf asked the guests to let the gnocchi rest on their tongues. Eyes closed. He was right. After a few moments, and a little bit of pressure from the tongue… the little potato pasta piece melted away under the roof of the mouth. And then – the spice! This dish with a spicy red sauce was Mediterranean-inspired and Israeli-finished. It had halved kalamata olives in abundance. The only problem for Assaf was the deep red color of the sauce, which looked a bit different than the original. The culprit, he said, is the kalamata olives.
Moving to the desserts. They were divine. The Mille Feuille was heaven. The crisps atop the light cream were the tastier cousin of corn flakes. The Torta Caprese was a genuine chocolate cake with ice cream and mousse. Not too artificially sweet, but not bitter. I closed my eyes to enjoy the moment of the first bite. A true treat.
Serafina TLV is as fresh to Ramat Aviv as its food will be to eaters. And for New Yorkers who are regular drop-ins to Israel’s most Metropolitan city, they can find a piece of “home,” as the two say, right here in Tel Aviv.