MILLVILLE - You've seen the set-up a hundred times: An entryway leading into a takeout section where the pizza ovens reign supreme, then another doorway that opens into a small, simply decorated dining area.
The tables are topped with those paper placemats advertising a dozen local businesses. Regulars stream in to their preferred seats and the waitstaff, happy to see them all, chat before taking orders.
Serafina's shares a small strip mall with a laundromat and a Chinese takeout, but it's this Italian ristorante that seems to be drawing the crowds. We wondered what the attraction could be.
As soon as we were seated, the owner, dressed in kitchen whites, came to our table to deliver warm, homebaked bread, and to welcome us to the restaurant. Family pictures on the wall included the matriarch, Serafina, who left Sicily for New York in 1970 and somehow ended up with a restaurant in Millville. The menu carried the story of a generation of Italian families' struggle to become "American." Serafina's is the Italian-American restaurant in menu and style that we all recognize as the type invented by the southern Italian immigrants looking to start a new life in America.
The bread was good, served with butter rather than the recent inclusion of flavored, extra-virgin olive oil on a plate. Our first appetizer course, bruschetta ($5.95), made up for it with a large plate of wonderful, toasted bread slices topped with chopped tomato, garlic, onions, basil and extra-virgin olive oil drizzled over all.
The bread and olive oil was the best part, since the tomatoes were the winter greenhouse variety and the vegetable mix needed a good dose of salt, pepper and grated cheese for good measure.
Mussels alla Mediterranea ($10.95) was a boat load of fresh mussels in their shells sailing in a seasoned sea of red sauce. We could smell the garlic in the sauce as it approached our table and found it to be the perfect medium for dipping more rustic chunks of crispy bread. From the specialty-dinners section on the menu, we selected the eggplant involtini ($15.95), thin slices of fried eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese and baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. The gravy was good, but the involtini was low on seasoning.
Our server had asked if we would like a pasta side and we chose ziti, which turned out to be a portion size large enough to be its own entree. The pasta with mushrooms ($11.95) also was so large we estimated it to be close to a pound of angel-hair pasta with lots of sauce and plenty of sliced mushrooms. It was obvious the draw at Serafina's was the abundant portion sizes that kept so many regulars coming back for more. We spotted desserts in a reach-in refrigerator by the front counter after we had already asked for the check. Our server suggested that we take a cannoli ($2.50) to go and chose one from a stack of piled high on a plate like a cord of firewood.
The menu offers homemade pasta, homemade sauces and bread made on the premises. Along with the dinners, which feature soup or salad, is a large selection of subs, sandwiches, panini and pizza. The children's menu offers named dishes - spaghetti and meatball is called Valeria, the shrimp basket is called Rosa Maria and two slices of pizza is called Salvatore. They're family members' favorites that may become your child's favorites, too.
Service was quick; we didn't see anyone linger over their meal for a long time. That's a shame, because Serafina's staff provided a friendly service and the food we sampled was all basically good. We did find a few housekeeping complaints, like sticky tabletops and menus that needed to be wiped clean. That doesn't mean we wouldn't make a return trip for a family meal that provides good food at reasonable prices.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
1712 E. Main St.
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $5.95 to $10.95; entrees, $8.95 to $ $18.95
Our bill for two: $51 plus tip