Stranded in a catamaran at sea when its mast broke in the Hamptons Bay during Labor Day in 1994, two friends, Vittoriao Assaf and Fabio Granato, vowed if they survived, they’d open their own Italian restaurant one day in New York City.
“When Italians are in distress, they talk about food or love, or maybe music,” Granato explained.
They were saved at sea by a helicopter the next day, and soon their dream turned into a reality when they launched Serafina Fabulous Pizza on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in July 1995. To finance its $650,000 cost, they tapped their own money supported by a small investment by their contractor.
What started out as one Upper East Side eatery has morphed into a global brand, with several variations, marked by a number of growing fast casual eateries.
Assaf, a former stock broker in Milan, already owned the restaurant Caffe Condotti in Manhattan, and Granato was an architect interested in moving into the food business. They named it Serafina, Granato said, because “it’s the name of the biggest angel in heaven.”
Serafina’s location on the second-floor defied conventional wisdom. “No one had the courage to open on the second floor because being at street level was a must for visibility,” Assaf noted.
Serafina became an instant hit. Assaf attributes its success to its relaying on ingredients from Italy for its staple items and “we created a food quality that was not existing in New York in the nineties. We also created a vibrant atmosphere with European lounge music,” he added.
Assaf also noted that it attracts a wide-ranging audience, not just a niche one. “We appeal to families and celebrities, from business lunches to after-shopping, pre-theater and post-theatre,” he said.
Despite its name, Assaf asserts that it’s “never been a pizzeria. Serafina is an Italian restaurant offering the best pizza, but we specialize in pasta, dry or homemade, and risotto. The cuisine is Northern Italian.”
Its signature dishes include branzino, salmon, filet mignon from the Double RRRanch, and for dessert, tiramisu.
The concept kept proliferating and Serafina is now a world-wide phenomenon, totaling 25 restaurants. It has 12 full-service eateries in New York City with three in the suburbs in East Hampton, Scarsdale and White Plains.
Then it has two locations in Boston, one each in Miami and San Juan, and one opening in Naples, Fl. The Serafina’s outside of New York City are franchised.
Their eateries in New York City have been “self-financed,” noted Assaf. He described it as a “natural choice, as the second was financed by the success of the first.” They took out minimal bank loans and kept debt to a minimum.
Overseas, it runs 10 Serafinas, including two in Israel, one each in Brazil, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, among several countries. They are all licensing deals.
They are now concentrating on expanding their fast-casual Serafina Express. One on the busy corner of 6th Avenue and 8th Street in Greenwich Village opened this week. It has two Serafina Express operating, near Grand Central and near Columbus Circle.
And the owners expect to open eight more this year including one in the Financial district, Gramercy Park, Midtown, with seven in New York and one in Penn Station in Newark, N.J.
Granato describes it as “quick service, high level of quality ingredients, simple recipes, relying on dining in, take-out and delivery and self-service.” He said the average dinner will cost about $22, moderate by New York City standards.
It also runs several other concepts beyond Serafina including Brasserie Cognac, its French-themed eatery, and two Farinella Pizza Bakeries.
And they’re not done yet. They also plan to introduce Serafina Gelateria in April 2023 in the South Street Seaport. It will offer homemade Italian gelato, as well as crepes, pastries, teas and coffee.
The New York City Serafina’s managed to withstand the pandemic. Assaf said the beginning was difficult when dining in was totally halted, but it relied on delivery, outdoor dining, and was forced to reduce employees. “We had enough reserve to deal with the pandemic,” he said.
About 20% of its overall sales derive off-premises, and it uses a host of third-party deliverers including Doordash/Caviar, Uber
Asked the keys to Serafina’s continued rise, Assaf rattled off, 1) Quality above all, 2) Location, location, location and 3) The success of Serafina Express.