Eating At Serra: When Italian Food Is Kind of Mid

By on Monday, December 4th, 2023 at 7:16 pm

Serra on the roof of Eataly in the Flatiron district

Let me begin by saying we were in the Flatiron district. I know, those words sound silly even as I type them out. Why would anyone be there of all places? My wife was at a coworking space and we were meeting my brother who was coming from the Upper West Side, and suddenly it seemed like the easy place to meet.

Fifteen years ago this whole area was kind of a big dead space on the map. There really wasn’t any place to go for drinks or food or really any reason to be here at all. It was where you went for photoshoots or to find a recording studio, or maybe where your carpenter did some woodworking. That simply isn’t true anymore, and this borderland between midtown and lower Manhattan has become a thriving–perhaps that’s too strong a word–a viable place to find food and drinks after dark.

We started off at BXL Zoute, a Belgian-style restaurant. BXL is the airport code for Brussels. I showed up first and was not disappointed by the selection of Dutch and Belgian beers. We also snacked on fries and bitterballen (but that’s literally a different story), but after a few of those high alcohol beers, we wanted a proper dinner.

We first tried Hill Country BBQ, right around the corner and oddly still within the few blocks that constitutes the Flatiron District. No luck though. They were closed for a private event. Suddenly we were at a loss. Where were we going to find food in this deserted wasteland of a neighborhood? There was a tapas place across the street (which is technically outside of the Flatiron District), but it wasn’t what we wanted. Then I remembered Eataly.

Eataly is one of those strange places that defies categories and expectations. Is it a food hall? A restaurant? A tourist trap? The strangest thing about it is that the chain started out in Italy.

Oscar Farinetti, an Italian businessman opened the first location in Torino in 2007 but now there are many locations in Italy and around the world. Eataly in Rome is next to the Roma Ostiense station, just a few blocks from Testaccio, the old Roman port. In Milan, there is a large Eataly overlooking the Porta Garibaldi, and back in 2017, we ate at Viviana Varese’s Alice Restorante in Milan’s Eataly (That was certainly a good meal).

The concept was novel then, even if it seems less so now. Pair a collection of restaurants with gourmet groceries, and attract customers who love food. There are other examples in New York that copied the rubric, like Le District in Battery Park and Essex Market. Le District is thematically French, with pastries, and French-inspired restaurants and food. And Essex Market in the Lower East Side is representing “old New York”, like a themepark version of what the city once was.

New York’s Eatalys originally had Mario Batali backing them when the first one opened, but he’s since been pushed out after sexual harassment allegations. However, since Batali helped popularize Eataly in the United States, that meant from the beginning there was sort of this celebrity endorsement of the chain. It feels more like a tourist trap rather than anything authentic, while in Italy, the chain has more of an upscale-yet-pedestrian feel to it.

The experiences between New York and Milan are different. Walking through the Flatiron store means bumping into a lot of Americans who are encountering spaghetti for the first time, while walking through Milan’s Eataly felt a lot like families buying a few things for their fancy Sunday dinner. But either way, suggesting Eataly’s rooftop terrace for dinner definitely left me feeling silly.

The interior of Serra at Eataly is decorated with lights and greenery. It can get cold in winter because technically its just a roof deck

The terrace, Serra in Italian, as the signs explain, is a covered roof deck restaurant that changes seasonally. If it’s very cold outside in winter, the restaurant will be chilly. It’s a huge space, like a cafeteria, but always highly decorated, and every season there is something new. The menu changes, the decor changes, and sometimes even the restaurant changes. Right now the whole thing is branded as SERRA by Birreria, and while we’re in the winter mode right now, earlier this year it was thematically looking toward southern Italy with a celebration of citrus and flowers.

I made a reservation from my phone. We had fifteen minutes to walk over. On our way through the Eataly store, we bought some panettone, and then headed up to the rooftop terrace.

A little drunk and a little full of bitterballen, we agreed on a lighter meal. The three of us would split the dishes and a bottle of wine.

It took a few minutes for the server to arrive, and so we had already chosen a wine and the food. We placed our order all at once and then we started waiting. Luckily the wine came out fairly quickly. The food did not.

It’s not clear whether this was by design, or simply that the service wasn’t particularly good, but the food arrived all at once. While I wasn’t expecting the meals to follow the traditional Italian method of serving antipasti followed by pasta followed by protein followed by salad, I was expecting at least two or three courses. Instead, it all arrived on the table at once (except the side of broccoli rabe, which was delayed but arrived soon after).

Here’s the thing: some of that food had almost certainly sat under a hot plate. That’s not a great way to start a meal.

With all the dishes out at once, eating was a bit of a confusing mess. I followed, as best I could, a sensible way of eating the dishes starting with the appetizer.

Squash and stracciatella at Serra on the roof of Eataly in the Flatiron district

Not very memorable stracciatella

I started with the Zucca Arrosto. This was a roasted honeynut squash with stracciatella cheese. Stracciatella is made by combining the scraps of cheese left in the production of mozzarella with fresh cream. It’s also the filling inside a burrata. Stracciatella is hard to get wrong. Roberta’s does it really well, as does Rolo’s. This wasn’t bad, because how could it be, but it also wasn’t memorable in any meaningful way. By contrast I can still picture Roberta’s stracciatella, golden with olive oil, years later.

The squash was a bit overcooked, especially on the bottom, and it probably was not helped sitting around waiting for the rest of the food to cook. The dish simply seemed like it was stressed a bit too much rather than cooked delicately. It was fine, but not spectacular.

Caesar Salad at Serra on the roof of Eataly in the Flatiron district

The bottom of this lettuce should have been cut off. The anchovies were delicious though

The caesar salad could have been made with a bit more care. The root of the lettuce probably should have been cut away before hitting the plate. The standout component here were the anchovies. They were a bit hidden under the lettuce, but the anchovies on the dish were absolutely great, rich with umami flavoring. I wanted more of those, and less of the slightly soft lettuce.

Ravioli in Brown butter sauce Serra on the roof of Eataly in the Flatiron district

These were tasty, but they would have been better if they hadn’t say under the heat lamp

The ravioli were a dish I was looking forward to. The sweet butternut squash filling complimented the sauce of brown butter. It was delicious. But it was also clear to me that this dish had sat at the pass for a minute before getting to our table.

The flavor of the brown butter sauce was great, but the presentation was a bit of a mess, and the arrival at the table a little slow in coming.

Port Cotoletta at Serra on the roof of Eataly in the Flatiron district

A fine cotoletta

The Milanese pork loin was fine. I’ve had better in New York, but it had a good crispiness and decent flavor. I’ll happily eat a pork schnitzel all day long, but the problem is I have. I’ve eaten plenty of them around the city and this one was average.

I found the side of mustard a little disappointing, too, as though maybe it would have been better as a salad dressing, and it was not a particularly Italian flavor and perhaps a little too sweet.

Cauliflower roasted with herbs at Serra on the roof of Eataly in the Flatiron district

Not to brag but actually I roast cauliflower at home better than this. I do like multi-colored florets though.

The cauliflower was fine too, with a nice herby butter, but it was the kind of preparation we make once a week at home.

Broccoli rabe at Serra on the roof of Eataly in the Flatiron district

The broccoli was well cooked and tasty

The broccoli rabe, the dish that came out a few minutes after everything else, was in fact cooked perfectly. It was flavorful and just a hint of bitterness to it. I love a side of broccoli rabe even when it’s mediocre–and in this case they did a better than average job. The real question though is why the standout plate of this meal was the side dish of broccoli rabe?

Ultimately this was a perfect example of a restaurant simply going through the motions. There was nothing exceptional here, nothing new or innovative. It was perfectly satisfactory food with attentive but not particularly well executed service.

Serra might very well be the poster child for the worst trends in New York City dining: adequate but boring food, mediocre experience, and a high price.


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