You’ve heard about diamonds in the rough. Well, Caffe Silvium is a culinary one. In a small, very ordinary little building directly across the street from the fire station in the Shippan section of Stamford is a true gem of a restaurant.
In an era of bigger-than-life chefs and corporate-owned multirestaurants, the man at the helm here is a Stamford husband and father who owns and cooks in one single restaurant day after day. This restaurant serves Italian food, which is hardly a new concept in Stamford. And indeed, the food is not cutting-edge contemporary and daring – there is no “new Italian” here. On the other hand, it isn’t old American/Italian being cooked up in the open kitchen, which welcomes customers as they walk through the entrance. No spaghetti and meatballs and no veal Parmesan in sight.
Instead, this unpretentious little restaurant is filled to capacity most nights because the food here is Italian in the sense that it is the food served in small, family-owned and operated, moderately priced trattorias in Italy. Indeed, except for the occasional fire sirens, one could imagine a small southern Italian town, especially in the enclosed, flower-bedecked patio. Inside, the room is just crowded enough for convivial chatter, but spacious enough for a romantic sharing of good wine and pasta. Simple terra cotta painted walls, tiled floors and crisp white clothes are just the right accoutrements for the wonderful food that comes to the table.
By now you all might know of my Italian heritage, and thus may forgive my excitement when the smells, flavors, energy and love that came from my Nana’s roadside trattoria kitchen in rural upstate New York are found here in Connecticut. So indulge me. The only real complaint I have is that the bread is ordinary and unworthy of the dribbles of lovely olive oil and garlic-marinated white bean dip that arrive with the menus.
The regular menu is augmented by a long list of printed daily specials that reflect the seasons and the chef’s marketing for the day. There are few surprises here, save for the fact that I thought it nigh unto impossible to buy a good tomato locally, especially before home-grown season, yet the bruschetta is lush with ripe tomatoes, brilliant basil, sweet garlic and more excellent olive oil. The ordinary bread rises to a new level when toasted and topped.
Other regularly listed antipasti are just as appealing in their simplicity. Tiny New Zealand clams have the right balance of garlic, oil, and good white wine. Calamari is either lightly grilled or delicately but crisply fried and served with a peppery marinara sauce. Mussels are sautéed with oil and garlic and a touch of tomato in the broth. Roasted peppers are marinated with white anchovies, and mozzarella is sliced with tomato and basil, all simple preparations that demand fine ingredients for success. The soup of the day might be spinach and fava bean or Portobello cream.
Daily special starters can be more adventurous and show the chef’s penchant for game, with options such as wild boar sausage over sautéed broccoli rabe. Pastas are many, and one of my favorites is handmade fettuccini cooked to perfection and swathed with herbed mascarpone cheese, fresh spinach, and shrimp. The same fettuccine is also served with a hearty meat sauce. Cavatelli is also hand-made and tossed with mushrooms in a light marinara sauce, or with broccoli rabe and garlic. Linguine is served with a mixed shellfish marinara sauce, or even better with shrimp, asparagus, marinara and shaved ricotta salata. Stuffed pastas include cheese ravioli in a tomato sauce or lobster ravioli in vodka sauce. The lasagne is the real thing, just like Nana’s, and the meatballs appear in miniature with baked orecchiette and mozzarella, just like Nana’s.
Main courses, or secondi in Italian, again are familiar and simple, with the simplicity and quality of ingredients being the operative words. Grilled chicken is topped with lightly dressed arugula and tomato, while braised chicken is fragrant with rosemary and garlic in a mix of hot and sweet peppers. Veal scallops are sautéed and sauced lightly with asparagus and sun-dried tomato, made richer with Portobello mushrooms, or served with the most decadent option of all – mushrooms and a memorable gorgonzola cream sauce. The chef’s penchant with hearty meats is highlighted in the daily specials, with choices that might include roasted venison chops with porcini and gorgonzola, roasted rabbit over polenta, or veal stuffed with prosciutto and fontina, then roasted with mushrooms.
The regularly listed seafood includes red snapper sautéed with onion, olives, capers, basil and marinara sauce, and shrimp marinara or fra diavolo over linguine. Since seafood is seasonal, look for more interesting options in the daily special list, such as soft-shell crab francese in lemon and white wine sauce.
Desserts are also worthy of Nana’s kitchen, especially a noteworthy old-fashioned zuppa inglase with eggy spongecake, chocolate custard and whipped cream. The ricotta cheesecake is light and lemony, and the profiteroles are fresh, crisp, and filled with vanilla and chocolate ice creams. Even the tiramisu (Nana never heard of this one) is among the best I’ve sampled.
Caffe Silvium is a gem. Mange, Nana.
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If ever we needed proof that Italian food is still America’s favorite cuisine for dining out, then a trip to Caffe Silvium will dispel all doubts. There is an ethic of enjoyment in Italian food, with none of the snobbish Epicureanism of other cuisines, and Silvium dishes it out with gusto. By 7p.m. on a recent weekend night, all the tables in this no-pretension family-friendly restaurant were occupied, and more than a dozen people patiently waited in the tiniest of hallways for a table to be cleared for them. Ask them why they stand at the maitre d’s station like so many commuters looking down the rail for the 5:32 to pull in and they will quickly tell you, the food and the low tab.
It certainly isn’t the parking, which can be a pain in the neck, with spots for only about a dozen cars and no room for maneuverability if you chanced to drive to the back of the lot only to discover not one free space and now need to back up to the street. And it certainly isn’t an attractive entrance into the restaurant that lures you to explore further – because you enter through what looks like a side door. In fact, it is a side door, and as soon as you set foot inside the building, you are face-to-face with the cook in the kitchen! Make a sharp left and you are in that teeny hallway where customers wait for a table and patrons leaving the dining room inch through the throng to the rest rooms at the rear or to the exit door. It’s a virtual riptide!
Word of mouth brought us here in the first place. Tipped off about the crowds, we showed up for our first visit at a time most civilized people haven’t even thought of a cocktail to start their evening, let alone what they planned to cook for dinner. Silvium has a homey atmosphere, with terra cotta painted walls, a bit of ornamentation here and there, and white cloth tables close together. Only forty people can be seated at one time, so it’s small enough to be cozy. No flowers or candles gussy up the place settings,, and the serving bar in the main dining room doubles as a pass-through to the kitchen. There’s fenced-in terrace seating, too, canopied in the summer months and enclosed by plastic sheeting at all other times, with an antediluvian heater overhead to keep things toasty when winter winds blow.
Silvium reminded us of the trattorias dotting the cityscapes of Italy. It’s not in the most picturesque section of Stamford, what with supermarkets and gas stations and shopping malls blotting the byways. But its reputation as a good neighborhood restaurant keeps the locals and the chance interlopers like us coming in for solid food that is not going to break the bank (most entrees ring up at $17 or less). As occasional drifts of spoken Italian drifted our way, we felt reassured that people from “the old country” chose to eat here, too.
If you were to script a traditional Italian menu with dishes popular from Naples southward, what would you include? Arugula salad and fried calamari? Maybe bruschetta topped with seasoned minced tomatoes or a platter of antipasti composed of salami, prosciutto, mushrooms, olives, provolone and roasted peppers? And pastas, lots of different pastas. This is Caffe Silvium, where homemade linguine is tossed in light marinara sauce and crowned with shaved ricotta salata and where the tomato sauce bathing the rigatoni is spiced with sausage and spiked with vodka. You can also have cavatelli prepared with mushrooms or tossed with assertive broccoli di rape. Of course, there’s lasagna layered with lots of ground veal, and the more delicate lobster ravioli.
You get all of that plus so much more at Silvium. Bread baskets and a small bowl of marinated white beans and red peppers appear almost as soon as you are seated. If your table is missing a cruet of olive oil for dipping, ask for some, as not every table seems to have it. Wine – from Chianti, cabernet, sangiovese and merlot to Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and white Zinfandel – is poured right to the top of the glass for $6 (the restaurant has no license for hard liquor). The wine list, as befits a neighborhood haunt, is modest, with most bottles in the $30 range, and draws from California and Italian vineyards. More expensive offerings are at the suggestion of the wait staff – if you ask.
All the food at Silvium is satisfying and flavorful, as it was at Maria Trattoria in Norwalk, run for twelve years by Nick and Vincenzo Petrafesa, two brothers who opened Silvium three years ago. (We’ve lost count how many Italian restaurants have been opened by two brothers. Big Night was right on the money on that score.)
Familiar antipasti are particularly appealing. One enticement on a weekday night were thin slices of eggplant rolled around a custardy mixture of ricotta and mozzarella and cooked in a mild marinara. It was tender and delicious. A plate of fried calamari, which could feed an Italian family comfortably for dinner, came on a bed of dressed greens and was a wonderful indulgence, although their dipping sauce (actually a humble tomato sauce) could have used more spice and salt. (A number of dishes lacked enough salt to bring out the flavors, and we had to reach for the salt shaker for the first time in a long time.) An order of grilled, smoky, calamari was less generous and while pleasing enough, lacked the panache of the golden-brown fried version. All the salads (there are five on the menu) are fresh, with good crunch to the greens, and al though the Caesar salad toes the line, with croutons and grated Parmesan, it has no anchovies or coddled egg. The endive, Arugula and radicchio spin had much more pizzazz.
What else can you expect to find here? Veal scaloppini bathed in a gorgonzola cream, or with white wine-cloaked asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes, or cradled in a port wine sauce skirted by chopped portobellos. The scaloppini in each case was thin and easily cut with a fork. Other entrees included cutlets breaded and quickly pan fried; chicken with artichokes or hot and sweet peppers; chicken breasts pounded thin and stuffed by the by-now not-uncommon combination of spinach, goat cheese and portobello mushrooms; fish (red snapper is Silvium’s fish of choice on the regular menu) with the savory coupling of onion, olives and capers in a basil tomato sauce.
That’s the way a striped bass was served one Saturday night. The fish, thick and succulent, was cooked perfectly and played well against the tangy nuances in the tomato-olive sauce. The dish included quickly sautéed Swiss chard with a bare hint of garlic and came with roasted potatoes, a favorite pairing for fish in many Italian restaurants. Pan-toasted cod was another good choice. It had been lightly coated with breadcrumbs and was presented with the same sides – Swiss chard and potatoes.
A choice of venison or prok osso busco starred on the specials slections on another visit. We chose the pork, figuring it would be more tender and more flavorful, and we were not disappointed. It was accompanied by a creamy risotto and carrots with a welcome bite to them. We missed the usual gremolata that often dresses an osso busco and which would have added a bit of a counterpoint. The portion was huge, but then so is every dish at Silvium. There were doggy bags at the end of the meal at every table, weekday and weekend – a great bargain when you come to think of it, since you get two meals for the price of one.
Outside of ice cream and a sorbet or two – pistachio and hazelnut are very nice – all desserts are made on the premises. Although the chocolate mousse was rightfully decadent, and the tartuffo and profiterol rich enough to send us to Weight Watchers, our hands-down favorite was the Zuppa Inglese. This is a layered dessert, part milk custard, part chocolate custard poured over a base of light-as-air sponge cake. A ladle of whipped cream was the final flourish. Don’t pass it by.
All in all, Caffe Silvuium provided us with soul-satisfying food and fast, friendly service. It’s a pleasant night out with friends or the kids. Move over locals and make room for us.
Caffe Silvium is at 371 Shippan Avenue in Stamford. It is open Monday through Saturday, with dinner only on Satuday. On Friday and Saturday nights, reservations are only taken for tables of five or more. 324-1651.
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