How The Serafina Restaurant Group Has Stayed Relevant After 30 Years In New York City And Beyond

Vittorio Assaf and Fabio Granato run a veritable restaurant empire with more than 35 businesses on their roster. In New York City alone, there are 13 Serafina restaurants, two Tokugawa locales, two Brasserie Cognac locations, one Pizzeria Farinella, and their first Pizza Funhouse spot. However, the sizable restaurant group may have never come to be if it was not for an (almost) tragedy.

In September 1994, Assaf and Granato were out boating in the Hamptons Bay when their mast broke. Stranded, they made a pact: The two would open a restaurant together if they made it through the ordeal. Fortunately, they were rescued, and they founded Serafina Fabulous Pizza the following year. The start-up costs of around $650,000 were primarily self-funded, though they did receive a small investment from their contractor.

This was a bold move, but the pair had the sort of experience that would give them a fighting chance in a notoriously challenging industry. After working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Assaf had spent time in marketing, public relations, and merchandising for a firm that had clients such as fashion brand Gianfranco Ferré. Importantly, he had also opened the restaurant Café Condotti, so he had some first hand experience. Granato's background was in construction and architecture, which lent the team important knowhow in crafting functional, beautiful, and welcoming spaces. It was their combined expertise, understanding of desirable ambience, and tireless pursuit of excellent food that put Serafina on the map.

Serafina then and now

Serafina Fabulous Pizza was started at 79th Street and Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side in New York City in 1995. Thirty years later, the doors are still open, and at its core, it remains the same. The combination of great food made from high-quality ingredients plus an attractive space with a distinctly European vibe attracted a wide range of clientele, making the restaurant successful despite its less-than-ideal second story locale. The cuisine has always focused on Northern Italy, offering antipasti, salads, pastas, pizzas, and larger meat-focused plates.

While Italian restaurants globally have become more focused on quality, originality, and creativity, so too has Serafina. "Serafina has evolved with the times, still offering the most classic traditional dishes Italy is known for, but adding a new take or a small twist to the original classics to keep up with the evolution of Italian cuisine," Vittorio Assaf told Food Republic.

The restaurateurs travel to Italy several times a year in search of the best ingredients to cook Italian food. For example, they source their Parmigiano Reggiano (not parmesan) from Parma, Italy and know the local producer personally. "Paolo [Gennari] uses only the milk produced from his grass fed cows with a process of working the cheese by hand in a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation," Assaf explained. This obsession with quality was unique in the New York City scene when Serafina Fabulous Pizza was founded and continues to be integral to success.

The food at Serafina restaurants keeps people coming back

Clearly, with an ever-expanding repertoire of restaurants, there is a demand for the food Serafina is putting out. The menus at the Italian restaurants are substantial and generally showcase timeless, straightforward, and tasty Italian fare with a bit of flare. This includes dishes like grilled octopus with tomatoes, onions, olives, and potatoes, spicy penne alla vodka, which is sometimes called disco pasta in New York City, branzino with cherry tomatoes, and pizza quattro stagioni. The Serafina Osteria concept leans more inventive with dishes like tagliolini with cantaloupe, Italian anchovies, and cream, or Cornish hen with a spicy brandy reduction.

Another one of their concepts — Serafina Vino e Cucina — makes finding the perfect glass of wine a breeze by printing suggested wine pairings on the menu right alongside classic Serafina dishes. A glass of acidic and herbal Pecorino is the suggested accompaniment for the prosciutto and burrata antipasto. Risotto porcini is paired with a chianti classico. And the Serafina burger is paired with fruity and bubbly lambrusco. The spaghetti cacio e pepe served with a glass of Franciacorta Mirabella Blanc de Blanc — a dry, mineral-driven, sparkling chardonnay and pinot blanc blend from Lombardy, Italy — is a personal favorite of Vittorio Assaf, and the tiramisu is his preferred dessert.

Serafina Restaurant Group has French and Japanese concepts too

Vittorio Assaf and Fabio Granato have relied on strong partnerships with folks with similar passion and work ethic to bring exciting non-Italian concepts to life. Assaf's love affair with French food began when he was young, and that affinity was only deepened through his friendship with renowned chef Eric Ripert. That relationship inspired the Serafina restaurateurs to partner with chef Florian Hugo to open their own French concept in 2008: Brasserie Cognac de Monsieur Ballon.

The menu is similar to the Serafina Italian restaurants in that it holds true to traditional brasserie fare while adding a bit of a twist. It is now run by Chef Luis Gutierrez, who is an alumni of Hugo. Diners can expect to sample Brasserie Cognac's signature tuna tartare with wasabi and ponzu, light and cheesy gougeres, or a Niçoise salad made with Italian tuna.

Drawing on the talent of trusted friends and associates is also what inspired Geisha — Assaf and Granato's now-shuttered 2003 entrance into Japanese food alongside chefs Eric Ripert and Kazuo Yoshida. To some, sushi and sashimi may have seemed like a sharp turn from pizza and pasta, but for Assaf and Granato, there is congruence. They both rely on "an incredible passion and the endless search for the best quality ingredients," explains Assaf. Fifteen years later, chef Kazuo Yoshida is now at the helm of another Serafina concept, Tokugawa, showcasing seasonal omakase and a seafood-forward a la carté menu.

Serafina stays true to its ethos no matter the locale

Serafina has 16 restaurants outside of New York City, with 12 located beyond the United States; there are even three spots in Italy. Whether Serafina is dishing out Italian food in Puerto Rico, Japan, or India, guests can expect the same great preparations made with "ingredients [that] are naturally sourced and handmade with love and dedication," says Assaf. Restaurant goers can order the iconic tartufo nero (black truffle) pizza whether they are in Manhattan, San Juan, or Tokyo.

"We only marginally twist our menu to adapt to local taste and customs, mostly triggering the amount of spice or salt," he explains. They also incorporate local ingredients when it makes sense, and they adjust the portion sizes to suit the norms of the area. Occasionally, Serafina will also take inspiration from a local dish and add its own take to the menu. For example, in Turkey, the breakfast menu has a dish called menemen: scrambled eggs flavored with tomatoes, onions, and peppers.

What is next for the Serafina Restaurant Group?

At the time of writing, the youngest restaurant in the Serafina Restaurant Group is Pizza Funhouse, which opened in May 2024. It is quite different from the other Serafina ventures, with a casual ambiance, nostalgic '60s style booths, and retro colors. The menu features milkshakes and distinctly Italian-American fare. The restaurant is actually an homage to the unique pizza culture of New York City and the American television that Vittorio Assaf and Fabio Granato grew up watching — particularly the show "Happy Days."

Again, to make Pizza Funhouse successful, Assaf and Granato are relying on strong partnership and excellent ingredients. "We have a great team at Pizza FunHouse who have worked at some of the top pizza spots in NYC, and they're making some really creative New York slices at the store, all while still incorporating the best ingredients we import directly from Italy," Assaf explains. Next, a trip south of the border may be on the agenda. The pair are actually big fans of Mexican food and spirits. "We'd love to continue to learn more about Mexican cuisine, tradition, and hospitality and perhaps create something fun here with that cuisine," says Assaf.