The Downtown Elaine’s Charges, And Charges Ahead

moira 4 The Downtown Elaine’s Charges, And Charges AheadIt was bad news for Silvano Marchetto when Graydon Carter decided to go into the restaurant business. For over 30 years, Da Silvano was something of a downtown Elaine’s, with celebrities, artists, writers, and gallery owners packing its noisy rooms for lunch and dinner. But when the Waverly Inn opened, Mr. Marchetto lost not only his best customer, but many of his boldface names as well.

Still, the restaurant is hardly empty, even at the end of summer. On a warm evening, the east side of Sixth Avenue between Bleecker and Houston feels like an Italian piazza. Da Silvano’s linen-topped tables and chrome chairs spread out over the wide sidewalk; further up are the tables of its neighbor, Bar Pitti. People loiter in the street, lounge on the benches, or stop to chat with friends having dinner. A yellow Ferrari draws up to the curb and is immediately surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd of young Italians, including the waiters, who wear light blue shirts and neckties.

Meanwhile, Mr. Marchetto is on patrol, wending his way among the tables. Silver-haired, bespectacled, and rotund, he is dressed in a white sweatshirt, beige pants, and white leather thong sandals decorated with Chinese dragons. His toenails are painted black. The silver two-seater Smart car he owns is parked in front of the restaurant, wedged in behind a black SUV the size of a hearse.

Tonight there is a gallery owner, a film director, and a Hollywood screenwriter, none of them household names. At a table for eight, an Italian patriarch with a face from a Roman coin presides over his family of three generations. He has a napkin tied around his neck and watches, bemused, as his small granddaughter plays a computer game. Next to me, a suburban couple has an argument. “Stop saying ‘me and you!’” the woman scolds her husband, who is eating a boiled artichoke. “It’s you and I!

 

MR. MARCHETTO, who is from Florence, opened Da Silvano in 1975, when Italian restaurants in the city had Mount Vesuvius posters on the walls, candles in Chianti bottles, and the tautology “shrimp scampi” on the menu. But Mr. Marchetto painted his walls yellow and served New Yorkers such novelties as radicchio, risotto, and chicken liver crostini. Da Silvano spawned a slew of Tuscan restaurants (the first of which, Il Cantinori, was opened by his former busboy, Pino Luongo, who absconded with his staff). While many Northern Italian places have come and gone, Da Silvano has endured. Mr. Marchetto’s face graces the house line of oils and vinegars and even the bottles of water. But there is better Tuscan food to be found elsewhere these days, and for less money. So what is the secret of Da Silvano’s mystique?

The restaurant has high energy combined with gruff charm. The welcome is unequivocal, and as far as getting a coveted table, such as one outside, there seems to be no pecking order. As people table-hop, it feels like a party. You always run into someone you know.

But the price ratcheting is annoying. When I asked our friendly Italian waiter for a glass of white wine, he didn’t mention that the Gavi di Gavi he’d suggested (black label, it turned out) cost $26. Other white wines by the glass are around $16—hardly a steal. As for bottles, the list is Italian, predictable, and ludicrously expensive, with few choices under $65. But if you’ve made a killing in the art market, who cares?

 

WHEN I FIRST used to come to Da Silvano, the waiters would recite a long list of specials as customers glazed over. Now the specials number more than 30 and are pinned to the menu. I asked the waiter what he recommended as a first course. “Taglierini with black truffles,” he replied without missing a beat. (It’s $45.50.) “Lobster gnocchi.” (A relative bargain at $32.50.) 

Instead, we began with a salad made with tender pieces of octopus sprinkled with herbs, and a platter of merguez with gorgonzola sauce, a combination that oddly worked, the tang of the cheese providing a foil for the spiciness of the sausage. Squash blossoms arrived in a batter that was too thick, but they were hot and crisp.

As for the grilled seppie (cuttlefish) rolled in bread crumbs, it seemed to have made a brief passage under little more than a heat lamp before being brought to the table. The crumbs were soggy, the fish raw and gummy inside.

In contrast, the pasta dishes were very good, although the ravioli with fried sage leaves swam in butter. I loved the taglierini contadina, fresh thin noodles tossed with crumbled hot and sweet sausage and peas in a subtle tomato sauce; and the tagliatelle, which came in a rich, creamy sauce laced with pieces of crab.

Whole branzini, perfectly cooked, was accompanied by slices of squeaky fresh fried zucchini and roast potatoes. But the salmon tasted like a leftover: The fish was flaky, mixed in with cannelli beans, greens, and tomatoes, the sort of thing you’d put together yourself for a perfectly respectable meal after rooting around in the refrigerator—not for a price tag of $35.

The steak fiorentine for two is an immense piece of meat big enough for four. The “vertically roasted” duck, falling off the bone but still juicy, was terrific, redolent of rosemary and with a taut, crisp skin.

The desserts are ordinary; they include a pleasant tiramisu, a serviceable panna cotta, and sorbets—among them a lovely deep blackberry flavor, but the scoop of strawberry was iced from too long in the refrigerator.

So at least some things in the Village never change: Da Silvano remains overpriced and the food is hit or miss, and yet it’s still fun. Now Mr. Marchetto, with his daughter, will be opening Scuderia, a restaurant across the street. Too bad the neighbors wouldn’t allow another sidewalk café. Everything tastes better outdoors. Doesn’t it?

mhodgson@observer.com