I've passed Serafina a million times, always on my way to somewhere else. The soft neon sign and dim interior feel somehow sexy and urban in a postcard neighborhood that does not seem quite real to me sometimes.

I've got a schoolgirl crush on Eastlake--on the houseboats along Lake Union, and that tiny Pete's Market by the water (one of the best wine selections in town); the little fly-fishing shop; the retro-looking Eastlake Motel, and even ZymoGenetics, straight out of The X-Files, in the old City Light building. It's what I envisioned Seattle to be like before I moved out here; when I thought the whole city was one impossibly attractive working-class neighborhood, full of Jeeps and outdoor cats and cozy bungalows.

Serafina sits in the midst of all this, with its chocolate floors and crisp white linens. At dinnertime, candles flicker everywhere; wine glasses and polished silverware are positioned just so. On warm evenings, you can sit out in the courtyard or stay inside, where ceiling fans whir and jazz musicians perform.

On a recent Friday night out with the ladies, the place was pleasantly busy. A side note: I checked the impressively comprehensive yet annoyingly smug Zagat Survey--in which "comprehension" means quoting the exact comments of surveyed diners--and the guide claimed that Serafina's food is "sadly inconsistent" and the "service spotty." Hmm. I think that is "total bullshit" and I "completely disagree."

Our waiter was in full control. When he brought our cozze affumicate ($9.50)--mussels steamed with smoked tomato, harissa, leeks, and sweet vermouth--I rudely pounced with my salad fork. "Slow down, tiger," he admonished, as he firmly handed me a shellfish fork. (I love any waiter who puts me in my place. I need boundaries. My table manners are atrocious.) But can you blame me? Those mussels were tender and delicious, with a strong, smoky depth, the aromatic harissa and tomatoes infused into the mussels' flesh.

Our appetizer was indicative of things to come: Chef John Neumark's rustic Euro-Italian menu is devoted to potent flavors and fresh, simple components. Four-cheese ravioli is accompanied by a fresh peperonata ($14.50); housemade veal meatballs ($14.95) are partnered with a green-olive-and-tomato sauce; the house-cured pork chop ($18.95) is topped with summer-fruit chutney and charred onions; and swordfish (market price) is given the peasant-food treatment with a classic fisherman's sauce--tomato, golden raisins, pine nuts, capers, garlic.

Meats and pastas are prepared with a purist Tuscan bent, rather than with suffocating red sauces and overwhelming starches. (This is true in the best way at lunchtime, when I sampled a tasty, sort of modified niçoise salad with bonito tuna [$7.95] and a gorgeous serving of white Spanish anchovies [$5.95], which tasted remarkably clean and almost smoked. Belgian endives, green-olive tapenade, and mixed greens supported those fillets, and roasted peppers provided slippery-sweet counterpoints.)

Recent dinner-special sheets read like love letters to summer food: heirloom tomatoes, baby lettuces, figs, gelato for dessert. The pasta special ($15.95) yielded wide ribbons of handmade fettuccine, tossed with plump morels, fresh pea shoots, English peas, and a rich mushroom cream sauce. I had the seafood special ($18.95), which made my girlfriends envious--flash-seared sea scallops with nicely browned edges, perched atop a mattress of wilted arugula, tomatoes, corn, and caramelized onions. Flank steak can be tough and fibrous if mishandled, but ours--fanned across arugula and joined by portobellos, roasted fingerling potatoes, and fresh artichokes--was supple and full of complexity ($17.95), thanks to an olive-oil soak and oregano-garlic marinade. Those artichokes were flawless: grilled tender and softly bitter, with that buttery, vaguely sweet aftertaste only artichokes can leave.

And of course we had dessert: Budino al cioccolato, $6.50--a thick dune of intense, smooth chocolate. The best kind of overkill.

After dinner, the ladies drove me home, and I fell asleep early. In my dream, I was running down Eastlake Avenue, chased by a giant artichoke with skinny green legs.

2043 Eastlake Ave E, 323-0807.

Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 am-2:30 pm; dinner nightly 5-10 pm.

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