It's a warm wednesday night in greenwich village, the kind of lazy summer evening when most restaurants are half full, with the regulars away in the Hamptons.
And then there is Da Silvano. Tonight, this cozy 108-seat Italian eatery is fully packed, the celebrity quotient as high as the marked-up Tuscan reds on the wine list. Michael Caine, in a black shirt and black slacks, is holding court at the front window table with his elegant wife, Shakira, and four friends. Across the aisle, Fran Lebowitz schmoozes with two women, within eavesdropping distance of John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, who needed a larger table after running into Paul Schrader at the door. "I've been coming here for fifteen years," muses screenwriter Schrader. "Who would have thought this place would still be hot?"
Wander into the next room, and over by the brick wall, Anna Wintour, wearing pearls, a simple peach top, and crisp white trousers, is having a quiet heart-to-heart with a girlfriend, while two tables away, Susan Sontag is laughing so hard that her throaty peals can be heard above the restaurant's din.
Wait, there's more. Out in front, the record producer Babyface and friends linger over coffee, discreetly glancing at model-of-the-moment Sophie Dahl, who is languidly sprawled on a bench on Sixth Avenue with her entourage, waiting for a table. Meanwhile, fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier, who looks like he slept in his rumpled clothes, anchors a corner, looking up between bites of dinner to people-watch.
Presiding over this demanding I-want-my-tagliolini-with-truffles crowd is Silvano Marchetto, a short, compact man with silver hair and a bantam boxer's stance who pulsates with energy as he bounces from room to room. Casual in jeans and a blue pullover, he teases the women with a mischievous smile, urges the waiters to pick up the pace, and ushers in the VIPs with a no-fawning-here manner, speaking in such rapid-fire heavily Italian-accented English that even his regulars affectionately say they miss every other word. Author Nick Tosches, a daily lunch visitor who treats the restaurant as his home office, even having his pay checks and Fed-Exes sent there, jokes, "Silvano is multilingually unintelligible."
But charming, oh, so charming. "Please, keep him away from the women tonight," pleaded his live-in girlfriend, Dawn Tioli, earlier that evening. She met Marchetto during a brief stint as the restaurant's hostess ("The customers just wanted Silvano; they brushed by me like I was a homeless person. Silvano is a celebrity in his own world"), but now she rarely goes to the restaurant in the evening. "The way he flirts and women flirt back," Tioli says, in her breathy Melanie Griffithlike voice, "I was pulling my hair out."
Even though Marchetto has been attracting a heavy-hitting crowd ever since he opened his place back in 1975, he's not the least bit jaded; he's still thrilled that with the hundreds of Italian restaurants in Manhattan, all these famous people have chosen to eat in his relatively modest spot. "Tonight's a good night, yes," he says, beaming, standing out on the street, gazing inside at the hustle and bustle of his small universe. Silvano's 20-year-old daughter, Leyla, a student at George Washington University who is interning this summer at Condé Nast Traveler, says her dad calls three times a day, telling her who's coming in and, later, how it went. "You'd think by now he wouldn't be fazed by it, but he gets excited," she says. "He'll call and say, 'Madonna's coming tonight; are you sure you don't want to come?' "
Perhaps more than in any other city, New Yorkers live their lives in restaurants. We fall in love, break up, make deals, make up, hang out, see family, celebrate, survive the holiday blues -- all in public, all in the local food establishments. We eat too much, drink too much, gossip indiscreetly, go home with Mr. Right or, alas, Mr. Wrong, and talk about it all the next day with friends -- in yet another dining spot. We wear our private faces in public places. "A restaurant in New York is like an extra room in your apartment," says John Gregory Dunne, who dines at least once a week at Silvano's, where the waiters know to bring his Chivas and his wife's Absolut vodka with a bucket of ice on the side. "They make you feel at home."
In fact, New York's boldface names feel so comfortable at Da Silvano that they come even when you'd think they'd be hiding out in their apartments. Calvin Klein, embroiled in a nasty court fight with jeans licensee Warnaco, ate here with his friend Ross Bleckner a few days after his angry appearance on Larry King. Soon after the New York Times ran an article questioning whether Susan Sontag committed plagiarism in her latest novel, an unabashed Sontag dined there as well. Both Anna Wintour and her estranged husband David Shaffer ate here often throughout Wintour's messy affair and subsequent marital breakup. Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt signed the restaurant's autograph book in 1997, when they were engaged ("Thank you for letting us smoke," she wrote. "And smoke and smoke," he added). Several years after the couple's breakup, Gwyneth signed again, this time alone. The leather-bound autograph books, filled with testimonials from Jerry Seinfeld, Will Smith, Naomi Judd, and Madonna ("yummy, yummy"), are perched unobtrusively by the antipasto bar. (One of them was borrowed last year, and was subsequently returned.)
Graydon Carter, who eats three lunches and four or five dinners a week at Da Silvano -- "I never think about where to go; I just go there" -- liked the service so much that he hired away his favorite waiter, Ian Bascetta, to be his assistant. Ellen Barkin worked here as a bartender in her pre-Perelman days. Da Silvano's clientele have a Proustian madeleine moment when asked when they first dined at this Italian trattoria. Mary Boone recalls eating at Silvano when it opened 25 years ago, at a time when she was a secretary at an art gallery. "I was quite excited to go there and be able to get a table," she says. Thanks to Da Silvano's location -- just above Houston, within easy walking distance to once-restaurant-deprived SoHo -- the place has been an art-world hangout from the get-go. As the years have gone by, Boone can count life milestones -- the meals with David Salle, Barbara Kruger, Francesco Clemente, and Sherry Levine, the art-opening parties, the birthdays, the family nights out -- all spent in the warm glow of the restaurant's Mediterranean-yellow walls. "For a decade I went every Sunday night with my husband and son for dinner," says Boone. Her husband is now an ex, but Da Silvano has remained a constant. "I've had hundreds of gatherings there," she says. "It's the favorite restaurant of a lot of people in my life."