There are quite a few good Italian restaurants that few people know about in the cities and towns just north of Boston, including Medford, Everett, Revere, and Malden. Medford seems that it might have the most, but Malden has its share as well, including an excellent spot in the Maplewood Square section of the city called Ristorante Serena. It is a small place that is very easy to miss (it is just off Salem Street, the main east/west road through Maplewood Square), but one that is certainly worth seeking out.
Ristorante Serena is both difficult to find and, initially, anyways, difficult to even enter, as there is no door in front of the restaurant; diners have to walk into the restaurant from a side door that is on the far side of the business to the right of it. The restaurant almost feels like the type of old-school spot you might find in New Jersey, with slightly kitschy but rather charming white walls and arches, cornices with candles on top, and a Roman column in the bathroom that is used to stack various items. White tablecloths and dimly lit sconces add a touch of romance to it all, as does the sound system which seems to favor the music of Frank Sinatra and other crooners. Serena is a small place, with perhaps a dozen tables or so, but everything is spread out nicely, helping allow for quiet conversation.
The food featured at Ristorante Serena is mostly Southern Italian, with an emphasis on Calabrian cuisine (including many seafood and pasta dishes). Appetizers include a rather mild but tasty stracciatella (tortellini soup with eggs and spinach) that is almost big enough to be a meal in itself, an excellent Caesar salad with a moderately nutty flavor from the dressing, and an antipasto that comes with a number of Italian meats. Pastas include one of the best lasagnas this writer has had in the Boston area (creamy cheese, tender noodles, a rich red sauce), a homemade fusilli pasta with chicken, penne pasta with Italian sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, and basil in a pink sauce, linguine with calamari in a wine sauce, and bowtie pasta with salmon in a vodka sauce. A number of Italian-style pizzas are also available. For those looking for something other than pasta, you can choose from a tender and flavorful eggplant parmigiana, pork chops with vinegar peppers, a rack of lamb in a red wine sauce, pan-seared salmon, stuffed haddock, and grilled swordfish. Desserts are mostly made on the premises, including an impossibly rich item called Duchess of Parma (chocolate cake with zabaione cream, chocolate mousse, zabaione rosettes, and chocolate shavings).
Ristorante Serena is quite a place; the atmosphere is appealing, the food is excellent, and the prices are fairly reasonable for the most part. It is just one of many hidden gems in the northern suburbs of Boston, and perhaps one of the best as well. Maplewood Square might not be an area with which Bostonians are familiar, but maybe it should be, considering the quality of this little Italian dining spot.
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