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Serena's Menu is Steeped in Family Tradition

By Pamela Sosnowski

Serena's Owner, Giuseppe Cataldo, should know a lot about cooking great food and running a restaurant. After all, he literally grew up in the business, playing with flour bags stacked as a playpen while waitresses took turns keeping an eye on him in the restaurant his Sicilian-born parents operated.

"From this vantage point I saw everything that happened in the business and I truly believe it gave me an uncanny innate ability to operate restaurants," he says. "My entire childhood revolved around the restaurant. I still played sports and had friends but most evenings and weekends were spent working with the family."

Today, Cataldo has taken all of the knowledge he absorbed being raised in the restaurant business and has channeled it into Serena, a gastropub where "old world Sicily meets new world America." Serena's original location in Durham proved to be so popular that a second location recently opened in Raleigh.

"Our food is good upscale comfort food. This is honest food; it's all from scratch dishes. Some are family recipes, others are from my childhood, and some I've recently created. It's Sicilian street food plus Italian American food and some classic pub plates done right."

As an establishment heavily influenced by Sicilian cuisine, Serena's menu goes beyond the usual Italian fare such as pasta and pizza. Cataldo describes with pride one of his restaurant's most popular dishes: Panne Panelle. It's a popular street food in Sicily, but Cataldo's version improves upon the dry, flavorless version he was accustomed to.

"I had to make this sandwich not just edible but enjoyable," he says. "We start with the classic 1/16 inch flat Panelle (a chickpea fritter) and after a quick fry dress each one with an emulsion of Meyer lemons, champagne vinegar, and fresh herbs. Eight layers (of) these are stacked in between a soft locally baked Neomode Bakery bun - but not before it has been painted with homemade seasoned ricotta. This version is one that I actually crave and am proud to sell."

Another favorite is the Arancine, Serena's take on Italian rice balls. Cataldo's version is made with a seasoned beef, peas, mozzarella, and vegetable mixture that is shaped into a ball that is then coated with risotto, egg wash, chickpea flour and the restaurant's house-made, coal-fired sourdough breadcrumbs. "It's bigger than a softball and it's almost a meal within itself. It's a giant ball of 'O my gosh!'" declares Cataldo.

The 'heart and soul' of Serena's kitchen, says Cataldo, is Tony's of Endicott Sicilian Style Tomato Sauce, named for Cataldo's father and a flavor he discovered before he was eating solid food. It's a secret recipe that he tells us he knows by heart, and will never change. "In my opinion, it's the perfect sauce," he says. "It has all the flavors you hope to taste without leaning too far in one direction."

Cataldo describes the atmosphere of Serena as "a little NYC with a touch of Miami without losing the mom and pop feel people appreciate. A place to loosen your tie, take a breath, drop the pretentions and enjoy some really good drink and food." So the next time you're seeking unique Italian food backed by a history steeped in family tradition, bring your appetite to Serena in Durham, NC.

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