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The Pasta Connection

Luongo still sounds defensive about brashly recruiting his kitchen-mates back in 1983 to launch Il Cantinori (which he has long since sold), a Tuscan restaurant a few blocks from Da Silvano. "People don't get stolen; they make their own decisions," Luongo says, trying to take the sting out of the betrayal. "Some of the staff felt that this guy is great but he's crazy." Eager to bury the carving knife after all these years, Luongo speaks admiringly about the lessons he learned from Marchetto: "He's a very gracious host. He makes you feel like he's giving a little extra attention to you. It's still a special place after all these years."

That kitchen walkout could have severely damaged Da Silvano, but Marchetto just kept going, promoting and hiring and training a new staff. "Silvano taught me to cook Silvano-style," says Segundo Naula, an Ecuadoran who started as a line cook in 1982 and moved up to chef. The shy Naula is not one of those prima donna chefs as depicted in Kitchen Confidential; he's happy to take his culinary cues from the owner. (In fact, Naula interrupted our interview to take a call from Marchetto, vacationing in Florence, where he has a second home, about the menu. The owner had just tasted a new dish that he wanted offered as a special that night, dictating the ingredients -- eggplant gnocchi with roasted lobster and zucchini flowers.)

"I think it's the best Italian food in New York," says designer Nicole Miller, who gratefully passes out her wine-bottle-patterned ties to the waiters and is so partial to a sea-urchin-and-avocado pasta special that the restaurant calls her whenever it's on the menu. (She also likes the free entertainment, describing watching Al Pacino arrive with a date and leave, annoyed, when he couldn't get a good table.) Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the four-star French chef, usually eats at Da Silvano on Sundays, his one night off, his presence a tribute to the restaurant's culinary charms. "You never see any tourists there," he says. "The kitchen is like a closet; the food is very simple. Silvano doesn't cook, but he's very involved with the food. He'll have unusual things like ostrich steaks. It's fun."

Marchetto's kingdom has remained a relatively small one. Unlike those of such restaurateurs as Vongerichten and Luongo, Marchetto's attempts at expansion have had mixed success. In addition to Da Silvano and Bar Pitti, his biggest success is an Italian takeout joint in Miami, where he has a vacation home. In the late eighties, he launched an Italian restaurant, Toscano, in Boston but sold out to his partner; La Serre, a restaurant he opened on 60th Street in 1998, closed after just half a year. But Marchetto may have better luck with his latest project, a still-unnamed 50-seat steakhouse he plans to open in December on the site of a liquor store next door to Da Silvano.

It will be his first downtown venture since Bar Pitti opened in 1992. Marchetto had planned to run Pitti himself but changed his mind when Vivian was severely burned in a horrific accident at a New Mexico ski resort. (A masseuse lit incense while Vivian was getting a massage, and the room blew up from a gas leak.) "We didn't know if she would live or die," recalls Marchetto, his voice breaking. Vivian Marchetto says, "I was burned over 60 percent of my body. I'm very scarred, but I'm okay."

Giovanni Tognozzi, who had worked at Da Silvano, was the first person to visit the hospital when she was moved back to New York. An overwhelmed Marchetto asked him to become a 50-50 partner in opening Bar Pitti, a decision he seems to have regretted ever since. Oddly enough, the issue isn't the usual one, money. Rather, it's about control, bragging rights, the irritations of operating side-by-side. Marchetto has a long list of grievances, such as claiming that Tognozzi steals customers who are waiting outside for a Da Silvano table: "He'll just grab everybody. I had a customer go in there by accident, and they told him Silvano was not there tonight." Tognozzi denies that story but says it's not his fault if people get restless standing around waiting for a table at Da Silvano. "People don't want to wait," he says. "They go next door." Tognozzi has his own version of this running battle: "Silvano tried to ruin me. He was talking so bad about Bar Pitti, saying I wasn't using the right ingredients. But I have olive oil that he doesn't have."

What's the difference between the two places? Bar Pitti is cheaper and has a more limited repertoire; it doesn't have white tablecloths and doesn't take reservations or credit cards. The crowd is younger, the celebrities less numerous: Call it Da Silvano Lite. But despite Tognozzi's disingenuous claim -- "I don't know what he has on the menu" -- both restaurants offer many of the same appetizers and main courses. Carpaccio costs a buck more at Bar Pitti, but the mussels marinara are $2 cheaper and the penne arrabbiata is $4 cheaper. A few customers have taken sides in this battle -- loyal to one owner or another, or boycotting one restaurant or another -- but most bystanders are relatively oblivious of this tortellini turf war.

Here's the thing, though: Given that these days you can get a good plate of osso bucco or spaghetti puttanesca or even the occasional ostrich steak at much fancier Manhattan restaurants, Da Silvano's continued success is both impressive and perplexing. Ask people why they come back again and again, and those who live nearby, like Graydon Carter, cite the convenience -- it's his neighborhood place: "I don't have to dress up, and they're great with kids." Ask someone who lives on the Upper East Side, like John Gregory Dunne, and he replies that the pleasure is in the commute: "I just like the idea of going downtown. It's a sense of separation from work." Go figure.

Da Silvano is not a pretentious suit-and-tie or diamonds kind of place like Le Cirque; it's not so trendy (think Pastis) that civilians have to make reservations weeks in advance or call an unlisted phone number to get in; sometimes there is an annoying hour's wait between appetizer and entrée; and yet it's got a mystique, a special niche, a reputation as a place where things happen. "It's the downtown Elaine's," says New York Post "Page Six" editor Richard Johnson, a regular who frequently runs items about the action on the premises -- an August sighting of Keanu Reeves dining with Winona Ryder, or Jessica Sklar last fall gleefully showing off her diamond engagement ring to girlfriends shortly after Jerry Seinfeld proposed. "I get constantly bombarded by restaurant publicists," says Johnson, "but I've never gotten a press release from Silvano. I either see things on my own or people see stuff and call me."

There is always a lot to see here: daily dramas, fragments of people's lives, some of them famous, many of them not. The businessman screaming into his cell phone on the losing end of a negotiation; the tipsy blonde careening into tables, much to her date's amusement; Tommy Mottola and his girlfriend, Thalia, a Mexican soap-opera star with waist-length hair, ducking out after 45 minutes; a woman comforting another over breaking up with a bad-news boyfriend; Jeanne Tripplehorn in a pink sweater set and black skirt waiting on the bench out front.

That bench is already enshrined in neighborhood lore. Nick Tosches, who courted his assistant turned girlfriend Carrie Knoblock at Da Silvano, dedicated his most recent book, The Devil and Sonny Liston, to that very bench. "That's where we first kissed," says Tosches. "It was one of those hot summer nights." Tonight's another one of those nights, possibilities alive in the air.

Marchetto materializes, apologizing to Tripplehorn for the delay, and leads her party to a table inside. He's in perpetual motion, as usual, bobbing and weaving, checking on the wine for table 3, grabbing a stray menu off the floor. "My father talks about retiring or selling the restaurant," says Leyla Marchetto, "but I can't picture him out of it." And after a quarter of a century, this colorful picture -- the nightly Village tableau of the famous, the faded, and the fashionable -- wouldn't be the same without him.