There is perhaps no other restaurant that fits the term “hidden gem” quite like Ristorante Serena, located in Malden’s lively, working-class Maplewood Center. With its front entrance obscured from a passerby’s view, a little help from locals will guide newcomers down a lateral hallway through neighboring Panda Palace to find the highly acclaimed Calabrese eatery.
Ristorante Serena, named after chef and owner Giovanni Longo’s eldest daughter, has been ranked as the city’s preferred locale for Italian fare, seafood and catering for the last six years. With an intimate dining room setting and traditional cuisine from Longo’s native Calabria, Ristorante Serena is undoubtedly the city’s supreme dinner retreat.Giovanni was raised in Crotone, a thriving metropolis peppered with medieval and Byzantine structures nestled along the emerald green coast of the Ionian Sea. His father, Vincenzo, who went by the nickname Cecè, spent his spare hours spearfishing, a traditional and artisanal hobby for many of the locals who lived along the coast, which is so abundantly rich with wildlife. Saldella, or Calabrese caviar of sardine eggs, is still one of Giovanni’s most coveted foods, which he prepared with his father as a child after a fruitful catch. His mother could be found in the kitchen preparing traditional plates of the region, such as Calabrese-style fried meatballs. With a crispy breaded exterior and robustly flavored center, the meatballs never lasted long. In fact, Giovanni remembers hearing his father call up to his mother, in Calabrese dialect, from the street below, “Sissina, are the meatballs ready yet?” And just like that, Sissina loaded up a bucket full of meatballs, and through the kitchen window, sent them down to the hungry men below who were looking for an afternoon snack. In the summers he spent time away from the shores, escaping the extreme heat in the green mountains of Sila. “We have it all in Calabria,” Giovanni states, “the sea and the mountains. What more could you want?”
But at the age of 16, Longo’s sense of adventure led him to Boston for a vacation. He travelled to visit his brother who was working as a head chef at a well-known establishment on the outskirts of the city. Within the first few hours of his arrival, he met who would soon become his wife. Needless to say, Longo’s vacation lasted longer than expected. He began working under his brother, learning all that he needed to know in the kitchen. In 1996, Longo decided to set out on his own, launching Ristorante Serena that same year.
For Giovanni, freshness of ingredients is of the utmost importance. “I have no freezer here, except for the small one that chills my gelato and limoncello,” Giovanni proudly asserts. “I shop each and every day.”
His mother’s fried meatballs are a menu mainstay, as are his salsiccia and rabe. Both can be found on the appetizer menu, but the portions of the latter are large enough for a main course. The blanched rabe is pleasingly soft, and pairs fabulously with Giovanni’s homemade sausage, whose slight hint of spice creates the perfect balance of flavor. Together the rabe and sausage are stewed in a combination of white wine, olive oil and a secret ingredient that gives the dish its distinctly Calabrese twist.
Whether you’re planning to visit Ristorante Serena on a weeknight, or for a fancy evening out on the weekend, be sure to make a reservation. Ristorante Serena’s 50 seats fill up quickly. If you arrive early enough, you just might see Longo’s three children helping him prepare for the night’s guests, with his youngest, Lilliana, proudly folding crispy linen napkins. No matter when you choose to join us, a night out at Ristorante Serena is the perfect dining destination for any occasion.
Ristorante Serena is located at 18 Lebanon St. in Malden. For reservations, call 781-324-3170 or visit ristoranteserena.com.