The Pasta Connection

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.”

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.”

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.

The Pasta Connection