Da Silvano Cantinetta is the kind of restaurant you dream of stumbling
upon in Rome or Florence. It’s fun, glamorous, lively and so utterly Italian that you forget you’re in New York. The restaurant has made its home in
a former liquor store on Sixth Avenue at Houston Street and is an annex to Da Silvano, the Tuscan trattoria that for nearly three decades has been the hub of the art world.
At Da Silvano you get white linen tablecloths, and perhaps an extra dollar or two on the bill, but the menu at the Cantinetta is very similar. I even wondered whether the waiters who disappear through a door at the back of the restaurant were in fact going down an underground passageway to pick up the food from their neighbor’s kitchen. “It’s separate,” owner Silvano Marchetto assured me when I asked him. “But I still make all the decisions.”
When Mr. Marchetto first opened his place in 1975, most Italian restaurants in the city were of the old school, with their red checked tablecloths, candles in Chianti bottles, four-foot pepper mills and shrimp scampi on the menu. But Mr. Marchetto revolutionized New Yorkers’ perception of Italian food, establishing a tradition that was continued with Il Cantinori, Le Madri and beyond. Those places may have gone in and out of style over the years, but Da Silvano is one of the few restaurants in New York-of any nationality-that has stayed resolutely fashionable. It’s sort of like a downtown Elaine’s (but with much better food), and it continues to draw a mix of celebrities, artists, writers and gallery owners, despite the art world’s having moved to Chelsea. Mr. Marchetto expanded Da Silvano into the adjacent premises in 1982 and is currently in the process of opening a sidewalk café. Now, with the new annex, he’s basically opened a second restaurant.
At sunset one evening, I sat at a table by the French doors watching the parade of people go by; I could have been on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Streams of young Japanese women strolled past, loaded down with shopping bags from Louis Vuitton, Emporio Armani and Prada. A father and son, dressed in pinstriped suits and speaking Italian, placed their Christie’s catalog on the bar and ordered glasses of red wine. By 9 o’clock, every seat at the bar and every table was filled.
Out on Sixth Avenue, a car door opened and out stepped Mr. Marchetto, whose legendary gruffness seems to have mellowed with the years. His hair is now silver and, swanning through the restaurant playing the role of mein host , he looks like a smaller, stockier version of Dino de Laurentiis. (When a friend I was meeting for dinner went next-door by mistake, he took her by the arm and walked her over to the Cantinetta himself.)
The narrow slip of a room, which looks a bit like one of those upmarket Soho pizza joints, is a little raucous, but comfortable and pleasant. The bare brick and stucco walls are hung with bits of ceramic pottery, and the plain wooden tables are set with votive candles and bistro chairs. On a sideboard is a red charcuterie slicer that’s so shiny and perfect, it looks as though it’s never been used.
Chef Roberto Lamorte’s menu is substantial. Not only are there a dozen first courses, several pastas and over a dozen meat and fish dishes, but there are, of course, the specials. In the early days of Da Silvano, customers used to glaze over as waiters recited the long list, often in incomprehensible Italian accents. After some contentious scenes, Mr. Marchetto finally caved in and had the specials written down. At the Cantinetta, there are over 20 specials conveniently clipped to the menu.
You can begin with a dish that’s a springtime favorite in Rome, where it’s traditionally accompanied by chilled Frascati: fava beans with a pecorino cheese. The first time I made it, many years ago, I didn’t realize that you were not only supposed to remove the pods, but had to peel the bitter skin off each individual bean. (In frugal England, where I grew up, no one would dream of doing that!) The beans arrived tossed in a fruity olive oil with strips of a pungent pecorino from Tuscany, a far cry from boiled broad beans with butter. Instead of Frascati, we drank a Ceretto Arneis. At $35, it was one of the cheapest bottles on the short, expensive Italian wine list. (In reds, there are only two bottles under $50; the Barbera d’Asti, at $45, is excellent.)
Another special, fried artichokes,
arrived hot and sizzling on a sheet of brown paper. They were lightly floured and very crisp. Grilled sardines were fresh, but a tad overcooked. Octopus carpaccio was tender but needed seasoning. Grilled shrimp threaded on skewers, on the other hand, were great, with a delicate, charred flavor.
Summer truffles, grayish-white inside a black skin, are in season. They aren’t as strong as the white truffles of winter, but they’re still wonderful. They arrived shaved over a mound of tagliolini that had been tossed in truffle oil. I could have done with more of the truffles and less of the tagliolini, although the pasta was very good. A mixture of sausage meat, string beans, grape tomatoes and olive oil tossed with penne was splendid, and a better choice than the gummy tortelloni with sausage and broccoli rabe. My favorite pasta was the linguine terra e mare, an outstanding, subtle mix of seafood, artichokes, leeks and parsley.
The menu is strong on meat, with four different steaks, grilled rabbit for two and a juicy roast rack of lamb with spinach and roast potatoes. The vitello tonnato, made with paper-thin slices of veal under a smooth tuna-caper mayonnaise, was just what I crave on a warm summer night.
Desserts were not particularly exciting. They included a pleasant, light chocolate mousse, a fine crème caramel and rubbery panna cotta topped with chocolate fudge. Zuppa inglese tasted as though it had strips of damp cardboard in it. But the semifreddo with vanilla ice cream, caramel, almonds and whipped cream was terrific.
At the end of the evening, which had been so utterly Italian and jolly, it was something of a shock to walk out onto Sixth Avenue and not the Via Veneto. From the way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cantinetta lasts every bit as long as Da Silvano. I hope it does.
Da Silvano Cantinetta **
260 Sixth Avenue
Noise Level: Quite high, but not unbearable
Wine List: Italian, very expensive, well chosen
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Main courses, $12.50 to $25.50
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week
* good ** very good *** excellent **** outstanding no star poor