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The Pasta Connection

Frédéric Fekkai, the French hairdresser, first went to Silvano with Bianca Jagger "about ten years ago, after a gallery reception," and quickly became a regular. "The specialness of the place for me is that I always run into friends," Fekkai says, a day after dining at Da Silvano with his girlfriend, pharmaceutical heiress Elizabeth Johnson, polo-playing publisher Peter Brant, and his wife, Stephanie Seymour. "You never know who you're going to meet."

It's almost impossible to have a linear conversation with Marchetto -- about food, about the life and times of his restaurant, about anything -- because he's so restless, preoccupied with making sure everything is going smoothly. He'll start to answer a question, then jump up to make sure that Mrs. Si Newhouse is getting her broccoli just the way she likes it (steamed, without garlic), return for a few sentences and a sip of white wine, and then leap up again to answer the phone and take a reservation. He'll pace outside, glaring at the busy restaurant next door, Bar Pitti, where he is a 50 percent co-owner but has been feuding with partner Giovanni Tognozzi for years. "I get angry when someone copies my specials and sells them for $2 less," Marchetto complains. The easygoing Tognozzi shrugs off the complaint: "Silvano wants to get all the credit for this operation. It doesn't bother me."

Although Marchetto has a 30-person staff, he's a very hands-on kind of guy; he wants to talk to the customers and taste the sauce and make sure things are done his way, or else. "Oh well, the fun's over," groaned one waiter after seeing Marchetto trudge toward the restaurant one night. "When he gets here, it gets tense for us." After a mild stroke ten years ago, Marchetto briefly gave up wine and cigars but decided he'd rather live the good life than live forever; his one concession is trying to get more sleep. "I used to go to the bars until 3 a.m.," he says, "but it got too tough to wake up in the morning."

A middle-aged couple stop by the table where Silvano and I are seated, spot my notebook, and proudly announce that they've been coming for lunch once a week for fifteen years -- but oh, no, good lord (the man goes ashen-faced), they don't want to be quoted. They look, well, so ordinary -- a late-fifties, early-sixties pair, determinedly unstylish -- that it's hard to imagine the reason for their sudden panic. Once they're out of earshot, Silvano whispers, "They've been having an affair for years. She's his secretary. He brings her to lunch, and he brings his wife to dinner." And the waiters know never to say "So nice to see you again"? Silvano looks shocked at the mere idea of such a clumsy indiscretion. "Of course not!"

Silvano clearly delights in all this, knowing the secrets, being part of an intimate conspiracy, operating a restaurant that gives new meaning to the phrase dinner theater. He lives a block from the restaurant yet likes to walk several blocks to his garage in the morning, then drive one of his three cars or three motorcycles to work and park in front of the restaurant, proudly showing off, say, his new Chrysler PT Cruiser. ("He has a lot of stress in his life," says Tioli, "and he loves to drive his motorcycles very fast on weekends.") Marchetto's wardrobe makes people smile. "He dresses like a 12-year-old boy," says Carter of Marchetto's Hawaiian shirts and baggy cargo pants.

The restaurant has a lively, anything-can-happen atmosphere, propelled by the proprietor's manic energy. Marchetto's volatile temper leads to frequent staff upheavals ("I stopped going for a while because he yells so much and it became unpleasant," confides one regular); he frequently fires people or leads them to quit in anger. "I yell a lot," he concedes. But once his staff has left, he misses them, and often sends out emissaries to lure them back from rival kitchens: Veteran chef Segundo "Luigi" Naula and manager Maurizio Michi both fled only to return. "Silvano keeps the world spinning around him," says Michi. "No matter what, no matter who -- ex-girlfriends, his wife, his friends, his girlfriend -- he keeps it spinning. He likes to be in the center."

Marchetto's romantic entanglements alone could fuel a long-running sitcom. Marchetto and his wife, Vivian, have been separated for eighteen years, but she still works as the restaurant's bookkeeper, operating out of a windowless basement nook. Vivian Marchetto matter-of-factly describes the situation: "Initially I did want a divorce, but Silvano was opposed, and after a while I stopped asking for it. Obviously, if we're still working together, we have a good relationship, but we weren't meant to be married." Ask Silvano about his wife and he says, sounding boyishly bewildered, "She's always mad at me." Her reply: "I am always mad at him. I handle his personal bills, and he's always taking money out and he forgets to tell me. I'm always complaining about something. Even though I'm separated from him, I still have a feeling that what happens at the restaurant reflects on me. I want it to be the best." Marchetto's girlfriend, Tioli, also helps out at Da Silvano during the day -- arranging flowers, going to the Greenmarket -- and staff members describe the relationship between the two women as polite but frosty.

Though he has made a lucrative living dishing out Italian specialties (rivals estimate he grosses $4 million a year; Marchetto says that figure is too high), Marchetto stumbled into the restaurant business by accident. "I was supposed to be in engineering school, but there was no space, so I ended up in cooking school" at age 16 in Florence, he says. After graduation, he worked as a chef in kitchens in Switzerland and Paris for several years, did his service in the Italian Army, and moved to New York in 1968, working as a waiter at the Derby Steakhouse and other restaurants for seven long years to save money to open his own place. "I didn't want to cook here," he says. "If I'd worked in the kitchen, I would have deviated from what I knew how to make. They would have changed me. When I came to New York, I went to a restaurant that had Italian food, and I couldn't believe it, what they were doing -- making dishes I'd never heard of. My idea was to do Tuscan. I wanted to open a trattoria, brick wall, tile floor, small bar."

Hard to believe now, but risotto, radicchio, and truffles were novelties to New York palates back when Marchetto opened his eponymous restaurant a few blocks from the spaghetti-and-meatball, eggplant-Parmesan world of Little Italy. "Silvano was the first to do trattoria food," says Joe Bastianich, whose upscale-Italian-family-restaurant empire includes such Zagat favorites as Felidia, Becco, Babbo, Lupa, and Esca. "Back when my parents were in Queens still cooking Italian-American food, he was the first to bring the trattoria concept to Manhattan."

Marchetto took over a small, failing restaurant with a $500-a-month lease and seats for 42 people, and in the early years he did absolutely everything -- he cooked, brought out the meals to the customers, did the shopping, worked an eighteen-hour day. "We'd go to Hunt's Point at 4 a.m. for the vegetables," recalls Giovanni Zini, one of Silvano's closest friends, a cooking-school classmate from Italy. Zini waited tables at the restaurant in the precarious early days and still helps out occasionally, although he and his wife now own Chez Jacqueline a few blocks away. "It was not successful at the very beginning. Silvano wasn't scared," Zini says. "I was concerned that we'd end up doing all this work and be disappointed. Then the people from SoHo, from the galleries, started to come, and the place became a hangout for artists." Leo Castelli was at one table, Andy Warhol at the next, and then the rave restaurant reviews came in and the place took off.

The first person to clone the winning Da Silvano formula was Pino Luongo -- now the owner of Coco Pazzo and Le Madri and eight other restaurants, which gross more than $35 million a year combined -- who couldn't speak English when he arrived in New York in 1980. "Pino started here as a busboy," Marchetto recalled. "He was very bright, very fast, a nice guy. I promoted him. Then he left, and took the chef and all the waiters."