MULTITUDES HAVE twirled pasta and swirled Barolo at Serafina over its nearly three-decade run on Eastlake Avenue. So much about this beloved Italian restaurant is exactly the way its cofounder, Susan Kaufman, left it when she died three years ago this month: the chianti-colored mahogany bar; a bouquet of blossoming branches splaying from a vase sashed with silk ribbon; the tomato-red walls in the candlelit dining room, where tables are dressed in white. Executive chef Christian Chandler, who was 6 years old when Serafina opened in 1991, still heads the kitchen, only now, he’s Serafina’s sole owner.
Community and continuity were important to Kaufman. (Serafina’s other cofounder, Lois Pierris, left in 1998.) Before Kaufman died of breast cancer just weeks after Serafina celebrated its 25th anniversary, she made sure her business would have an orderly transition. Chandler became a percentage owner, and this January, he exercised a right of first refusal and bought Serafina along with its younger partner bar around the corner, Cicchetti. The buildings — and Cicchetti’s opulent Murano glass chandelier — remain in a trust Kaufman established for her daughter.
Chandler has spent a large chunk of his career at Serafina. He was a student at The Art Institute of Seattle in 2004, when he was hired as a pantry cook by then-executive chef John Neumark. Chandler says being promoted to sous chef in his final quarter “made me want to finish school.” After six years at Serafina, he stretched his wings elsewhere. His first executive chef position was at Lecosho, where he replaced opening chef Mike Easton (of Il Corvo and Il Nido fame). One night, Chandler says, Kaufman came into Lecosho for dinner, “And a few months later, I was back home.”
Chandler was born into a food-focused family. His grandmother was a butcher. His grandfather managed restaurants on the East Coast, after emigrating from Italy through Ellis Island, where the family name, Colora, became Chandler. His dad worked in food sales for a large West Coast distributor. When Chandler and his three siblings were growing up, Sunday and Thursday were always pasta nights, though they weren’t eating anything like Serafina’s handmade, duck confit-filled agnolotti del plin or their ricotta cavatelli sauced with braised Oregon rabbit. Both dishes are held in such high regard by the restaurant’s regular customers, Chandler says, “When we take them off the menu, we hear about it.”
He doesn’t plan any drastic menu alterations. “Italian food is timeless. We’ve refined and will continue to refine the food.” The braised rabbit, for example, was one of the first dishes Chandler brought to the menu in his early days. “I wanted to experiment, so Chef got in a case of rabbits and let me try.” Over the years, he’s made it more authentically Piedmontese by using Arneis wine in the braising liquid.
The real changes will be aesthetic. At 10-year-old Cicchetti, they’ve already repainted, upgraded the bathrooms and installed banquettes upstairs. Serafina’s dining room is due for a complete makeover early next year. “Susan and I first started talking about [this transition] in 2014,” says Chandler. “She was amazing throughout. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today without her.” Nor would Serafina.
Serafina’s Pasta with Braised Rabbit, English Peas & Sage
At the restaurant, they serve housemade ricotta cavatelli with this robust sauce, but it works just as well with a shell-shaped dried pasta, such as conchiglie. “The important thing,” says chef Christian Chandler, “is to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.” He uses Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis, a crisp white wine from Italy’s Piedmont region, in the braise. Buy two bottles, so you have enough to pour some with dinner.
For the braise:
1 rabbit (2½ to 3 pounds, cut into 8 pieces)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 large sprigs fresh thyme
2 stems fresh sage (or 6-8 large leaves)
1 large handful of parsley with stems
4-5 medium carrots, ¾-inch dice (about 2½ cups)
4-5 celery stalks, ¾-inch dice (about 2½ cups)
1 large onion, diced (about 2½ cups)
10 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups Arneis wine
6 cups chicken stock
Parmesan rinds (about 8 ounces, wrapped in a cheesecloth sachet)
½ lb. cavatelli, conchiglie or other shell-shaped pasta
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 fresh sage leaves, cut into a chiffonade
2½ cups braising liquid
½ cup fresh English peas, blanched (or use frozen peas, unthawed)
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
For the braise:
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
2. Season the rabbit with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet, and brown the rabbit on both sides over medium-high heat (about 4 minutes per side). Place pieces in a large Dutch oven or oven-safe roasting pan, and scatter the herbs over them.
3. Add the carrots, celery, onion and garlic to the same skillet. Sauté on medium heat until the vegetables take on some color (about 6 minutes). Stir in the tomato paste, and cook 1 minute. Add wine, and reduce the liquid by half (about 4 to 5 minutes). Add chicken stock, and bring the liquid to a boil.
4. Pour the contents of the skillet over the rabbit and herbs. Add the sachet of cheese rinds. Cover and cook in the oven until tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
5. Remove the rabbit to a plate. When cool enough to handle, gently shred the meat from the bone, and reserve. Strain the braising liquid and reserve. Discard solids, or save for another use. You should have about 4½ cups.
1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water, and add the pasta. Boil until pasta is a little more than halfway cooked, extra al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water.
2. While the pasta is boiling, brown 1 tablespoon of the butter with the sage in a large, heavy-bottom skillet. Add 2¼ cups of braising liquid. (Freeze the remainder for another use.) Bring to a boil.
3. Add the pasta to the boiling liquid. Stir while the sauce reduces, and the pasta continues to cook. When the pasta is just al dente, stir in the second tablespoon of butter, the peas and the shredded rabbit. Heat through. Salt and pepper to taste. If it gets too dry, add some of the reserved pasta water. Stir in some grated cheese. Serve immediately.