"That's him," High Maintenance whispered.
I turned around as subtly as possible to see an older gentleman in a lime green top and matching lime green glasses enter the restaurant at about 9pm.
Silvano had arrived.
It wasn't the only celebrity sighting of the night - Rihanna later emerged from the depths of the restaurant to be pounced on by paparazzi waiting outside with video cameras - but it was the most exciting. It would have been hard to recognize Silvano from his svelter illustrated portrait on the Da Silvano balsamic vinegar or the Da Silvano water. Yet this was the man who has been able to lure celebrities here consistently for years now (for details, see his site and photo album), even though Da Silvano is, well...not known for the food.
Not all of it is bad, but Da Silvano is a lesson in levels of access and being in-the-know, in keeping with the celebrity theme. One of the best dishes wasn't even on the menu. When High Maintenance ordered a caprese salad, I asked the waiter why this popular choice wasn't listed with the rest of the salads.
"Everyone knows we have it," the waiter said, in his signature blasé manner. Oh, of course. "Everyone."
At least the caprese was good. The firm exterior of the freshly made mozzarella yielded to a soft, slightly salty inside. I couldn't determine the provenance of the tomatoes due to Italian-American translation difficulties. (How do you say "heirloom" in Italian?) But the waiter agreed that the tomatoes were "speciale" (my word).
Oddly, the tomato bruschetta consisted of untoasted bread that was difficult to manage, though both bread and tomatoes were good separately. Not so for the panzanella - bread salad with tomatoes - which was quite disappointing if you've ever had the real thing. (It's easy to make, too: For a recipe check out Rogers & Gray's Italian Country Cookbook.)
"This is good, isn't it?" High Maintenance said.
"No," I countered.
"But it's good, isn't it?" she repeated.
"Needs more garlic or onion."
It also seemed to contain a lot of white wine vinegar, an odd choice that made the panzanella taste more British than Italian. Broccoli rabe sauteed with pan-roasted garlic was spot on, but the sausage that topped it off was dried out.
But forget about the food. We were here to dine outdoors (the summer theme of Gastro Chic), people watch, and drink wine. As for the reds, there were not a lot of offerings under $100, which annoyed me given Otto's ability - and, OK, Morandi's - to find excellent Italian reds at inexpensive prices. The Le Cupole was a good wine at $95, the Sondraia a great one - bigger, more complex, and slightly more tannic - for $120.
In the entree category, the pastas fared well. The rigatoni focaccia was the best of the bunch, with its cream and tomato sauce of double smoked bacon perfumed with sage. All this dish needed was more of the excellent sauce. Sage also played a big part in the success of the ravioli bella Firenze, spinach and ricotta filled ravioli sauteed in butter and sage.
We took the train off the tracks a bit when High Maintenance's fiancé Boob and I decided to split the roasted fillet of veal, exorbitantly priced at $95. Veal is already very delicate, but this roast was downright bland, and the gravy didn't add much flavor at all. For tips on how to make veal gravy, the chef at Da Silvano should check out Marinella across the way on Carmine Street. If I had to do it again, I would order the grilled shell steak.
Good or bad, Da Silvano is truly Italian. A large part of the menu is given over to daily seasonal specials. A number of the diners here were speaking Italian, as was the staff. But the thing that really tipped me off to the true Italian-ness of Da Silvano - other than the photo of Silvano driving a sports car outside Modena - was a note on the bottom of the menu, in all-caps: NO CHEESE SERVED ON SEAFOOD AT ANY TIME.
This food-induced rage about what's correct is something you rarely see outside of Italy, the country where I was told "Cappucino doppo pranza non esiste, non esiste!" which loosely translates as: Not only is it incorrect to have a milk-based coffee drink at any time but breakfast, but cappuccino after lunch doesn't even exist, it doesn't exist!
Even though it is celebrity-driven, Da Silvano is approachable. Now that the maitre d' she knew has departed for Morandi, High Maintenance and I had no special in at the restaurant, but she managed to make a reservation just like a regular person, and we were still given a nice table outside despite our non-celeb status.
"The food is really good, though, don't you think?" she said as we were leaving.
"I don't think people are here for the food," I said.
"But the food is good," she insisted.
With that we walked out of the patio to the spot where Rihanna's black SUV had just sped off into the night.
260 Sixth Avenue, between Houston and Bleecker Streets
New York, New York
"That's him," High Maintenance whispered.