2 stars for "truffle treatment" at South Beach's Serafina

At last count, there were about 5,000 pasta-and-pizza places in Miami Beach. What can one do to set itself apart?

For Serafina, which opened in December in the Dream South Beach Hotel, the answer is truffles. Executive chef Marco Zuccala lets the heady fungus fly early and often in his expansive menu of Italian classics.

He adds generous amounts of chopped black truffle to the luscious sauce that tops a picture-perfect beef tenderloin carpaccio: paper-thin circles of red meat specked with truffle and diced white potato, a small mound of vivid green Italian parsley in the center. The fresh, chilled meat and earthy fungus are a natural pairing, but a touch of lemon juice or pickled capers would perk up the palate.

Zuccala also stuffs truffles (almost certainly canned) in ravioli, bakes them into lobster mac and cheese and onto focaccia, drizzles them (as oil) onto fries and scatters them on pizza.

The truffle pizza is rich enough to satisfy a hefty appetite and pricey enough ($29) to max out the week’s lunch budget. The funky tang of Italian robiola cheese and the nutty, mushroomy flavor of fontina shift the truffle experience into overdrive.
With less assertive toppings, the thin-crust, six-slice pies are a good size for two or three people to share as a first or second course. With their pale, floppy underbellies and not-quite-melted cheeses, however, they could have spent more time in the oven.

Serafina is part of a 17-unit chain with locations in Sao Paulo, Mumbai and Moscow. As the story goes, Italians Vittorio Assaf and Fabio Granato were stranded at sea in a sailboat, and talked about pizza to pass the time, vowing to open a restaurant if they survived. They made it back to shore, and launched the Serafina empire on Madison Avenue in 1995.

The 129-seat South Beach spot, in the space formerly occupied by Geoffrey Zakarian’s Tudor House, is lined with comfortable banquettes and features an inviting, old-school bar and pastel-hued wall art. Outside seating provides good people-watching at 11th Street and Collins Avenue, but our al fresco experience was marred by diners at nearby tables who smoked cigarettes throughout their meals.

Truffles aside, it’s hard to differentiate Serafina from the Beach’s other pasta-and-pizza joints. Fried rings of calamari were overcooked and undersalted. A Sofia salad, Serafina’s “Italian” take on a Caesar, tasted like … a Caesar salad. The light sauce that’s promised with linguine alle vongole is a quite-heavy dousing of garlicky olive oil that drowns out any ocean flavor from tiny, pencil-eraser clams.

Servers were friendly and familiar with the large menu, although none informed us that Miami Beach residents get 15 percent off their checks (lesson: ask). Delays between courses frequently stretched beyond the comfort level, as did a conversation between two employees about the restaurant’s latest health inspection — a real no-no in front of customers, fellas.

On a sweet note, desserts are all house-made, including a satisfying tiramisu and boozy popsicles — peach and tequila, vodka and passion fruit, and champagne and strawberry — that, like truffles, help Serafina stand out from the crowd.