Restaurant Wars: Da Silvano vs. Bar Pitti

With famous fans like Jack Nicholson, Jay-Z, Mayor Bloomberg and Brangelina, West Village restaurants Da Silvano and Bar Pitti have a reputation as two of the most star-studded dining rooms in New York. But the owners of the neighboring Italian hot spots also have an ongoing—and very personal—feud that plays out like a Scorsese movie.


Beneath the cheery yellow awnings of Da Silvano, a 33-year-old Tuscan restaurant and boldfacer feeding trough at Sixth Avenue and Houston Street in the West Village, the October air is alive with conversations at Chianti-enhanced volumes. After all these years, it still has the kind of buzz that encourages convivial laughter and triumphant toasts. Cutting through the din is the raspy, fast-paced mumble of owner Silvano Marchetto, 62. "Ciao, so nice to see you," he calls out to well-heeled guests in his thick Florentine accent, palming the celebrities and smiling at the models. He's an owlish, white-haired, roly-poly man with arched eyebrows and a sly smile. But every so often, over the top of his reading glasses, Silvano casts a baleful glance toward the restaurant next door. The smile fades. Under his breath, he mutters, "Bastardo!"

The man at the receiving end of his invective is a fellow Tuscan named Giovanni Tognozzi. The balding, gruff 58-year-old is the owner of Bar Pitti, a restaurant some 20 feet north of Da Silvano. From the looks of it, both restaurants are prospering. Over the past three decades, Da Silvano has attracted the city's elite: Mayors from Beame to Bloomberg, and power players from Harvey Weinstein to Madonna and Brangelina. Sixteen-year-old Bar Pitti is no slouch either. Its outdoor tables are permanently occupied with a combination of Eurotrash and West Village regulars who have just enough wattage to make the room sparkle: Beyoncé and Jay-Z are fans, as are Alex Rodriguez and Padma Lakshmi. The dining scenes at both spots are happy—as man-about-town and Pitti habitué Euan Rellie says, "Silvano is dinner and sex. Bar Pitti is a midafternoon snack and a cuddle." But a virulent conflict rages behind the scenes.

It's hard to believe that once upon a time, Silvano and Giovanni were partners and before that, friends. In the late '80s, Giovanni worked for Silvano as a waiter. He was fired in a spark of fury, only to reconcile with his old boss years later—and they actually opened a business together. Those days of wine and roses are long gone, and only the thorns remain. After accusations of mismanagement, sexual harassment, thievery and duplicity, the two old pals broke up for good in 2005. It's been war ever since. The latest incident occurred this past August, when an irate Giovanni chased a Da Silvano employee out of Bar Pitti, screaming Italian epithets. Like Vesuvius, the feud, which had lain dormant for a few years, erupted again.

With enough pasta and paparazzi to go around, it seems strange that Giovanni and Silvano entertain such hostilities. But Italians love a good fight. And the feud between Silvano Marchetto and Giovanni Tognozzi has all the classic elements: tragedy, money, betrayal and penne arrabiata.

Although Sixth Avenue just above Houston Street is now a landscape of Town Cars, Bugaboo strollers and fro-yo shops, in 1975 gentrification was still years away. "It was a very gritty area. There were still odds and ends left over from when Sixth Avenue was cut through the South Village to make way for the A train and the El was torn down," says Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. What is now Da Silvano was then a red-sauce-and-meatball joint named Bimbo's, which catered to neighborhood Italians. Silvano himself, at that time, was just another young, single, handsome Italian with a dream of owning his own restaurant. He had gone to cooking school in Florence and arrived in New York in 1968, at 22, to work as a waiter. He toiled for seven years and when Bimbo's owner died in 1975, Silvano sensed his moment had come. He took over the $500-a-month lease.

When Da Silvano opened on May 1, 1975, it was a one-man operation. "I was doing everything. I was running back and forth from the kitchen to the bar to the tables," Silvano recalls. It's hard to imagine now, in a city crammed with adventurous Italian restaurants from A Voce to Zorzi, that Silvano was a culinary pioneer simply by putting radicchio and gamberi (a.k.a. prawns) with roe on his menu. The "exotic" ingredients and downtown location soon won Silvano a glamorous, creative clientele. Many were art-world denizens flowing north from Soho: gallerists Mary Boone and Leo Castelli, artists like Bryce Marden and Louise Nevelson. Some were young writers, including author Nick Tosches and magazine editor Graydon Carter, then at Spy. In 1981, a young writer named Anna Wintour celebrated her hiring at New York magazine there. Da Silvano was pricey even then. Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens remembers, "I couldn't afford Silvano in those days. I was over on Tompkins Square eating cheap Italian food."

The restaurant quickly secured its reputation as a place to see and be seen. By the '80s, the small restaurant was doing 300 covers a night. It was a lot for one man to handle, especially since Silvano had married Vivian Raby in 1977 and the couple had welcomed a child, Leyla, in 1979. "I was still working six days a week, sometimes seven," Silvano says. By 1984, the original space had grown to include a second storefront. Tables were packed, and the level of celebrity clientele jumped a letter grade. The water-damaged autograph books that Silvano keeps behind the bar are testament to his popularity among the movers and shakers. Jack Nicholson scrawled a not half-bad sketch of Silvano. Chris Rock wrote, "Kiss my black ass." Sigourney Weaver inked, "I arrived an actress and left a mermaid. Your turbot was out of this world." Madonna stopped by, and Silvano asked her to sign a copy of her notoriously graphic book Sex for his daughter, Leyla.

But with a small child, a new wife and a growing business, Silvano was on the hunt for help. When a young Tuscan named Giovanni Tognozzi showed up on the doorstep of the restaurant looking for a job, Silvano kitted him out in a white shirt, black pants and Nicole Miller tie and set him to work as a waiter. Silvano was happy for the extra set of hands and guided Giovanni in both the front and the back of the house. "He had worked as a waiter in [the Tuscan town of] Viareggio," recalls Silvano, "but he had no culinary experience." But a few months after Giovanni was hired, he was dramatically unhired. Silvano tells it this way: "One day—bastardo—we were preparing for a party. I told him how to set the table as we needed it. I left for an hour and came back and the table wasn't done. I said, 'What are you doing?' He took off, and that was the end. Fine. Thank you. Good-bye." (Giovanni refused to discuss his period under the enemy's roof.)

For a time, it seemed like the paths of Giovanni and Silvano had diverged forever. Giovanni went to work for another restaurant; Silvano busied himself with plans to expand even further. But in 1987, at age 40, Silvano suffered a mild stroke (the effects of which can still be heard in his slightly slurred speech). While recuperating at St. Vincent's Hospital, he had a surprise visitor. "I had a stroke. And…" Silvano says, fluttering his fingers in a show of voilà-style surprise, "Giovanni shows up." The restaurateur quickly recovered, and though leery of his former employee, the two men began a friendship. "The guy [had] changed," Silvano remembers. "He became normal because when he left he was really irrational."

Five years later, Silvano's success was even greater. In 1992, he signed a contract to open a new bar next door to Da Silvano, tentatively named Bar Giacosa. To celebrate, he headed with his wife, Vivian, and their then 13-year-old daughter, Leyla, to New Mexico for a ski vacation. As Leyla, now 29, tells it, "My parents were separated but they used to get together on vacations for me. I was out skiing with a friend when there was an explosion in the hotel where my mother was." Vivian sustained serious burns over 60 percent of her body and was hospitalized in New Mexico. "She was burned in the fire. She was gonna die," Silvano adds. In the months after the accident, he split his time between the restaurant, ferrying Leyla to and from school in Rockland County and visiting Vivian in the hospital back in New Mexico. Leyla says, "For my dad, it was too much."

With one business was going gangbusters thanks to his constant presence, another about to open and his wife needing him almost 2,000 miles away, Silvano was at his wit's end. So "I asked Giovanni if he was interested in doing business," says Silvano. "I took him in because he became normal again." The two became 50-50 partners in Bar Giacosa and, to symbolize their partnership, rechristened the spot Bar Pitti in honor of their shared hometown of Florence—home of the Medici family's famed Palazzo Pitti. But according to Silvano, Giovanni leaned on him for much more than just business. "I gave him one of my apartments as a sublet," he says, sounding like a hurt father. "I took him to buy sheets. I even bought a ticket to Italy for him on my Amex."

Giovanni says that each man contributed 50 percent of the start-up capital, though Silvano disputes this: "I put in twice as much as he did." As co-owners, directors and stockholders of Bar Pitti, the two men would split profits between themselves. The concept was for a low-key, informal trattoria version of next door's Da Silvano. When it opened in August 1992, gone were the white tablecloths, replaced by simple square wooden tables. The menu eschewed truffles for more earthy fare, like tuna salad for $5 and veal meatballs for $8.

Bar Pitti initially flourished. Eric Asimov, reviewing it in The New York Times, called the dishes "superb" and lauded the "perfectly cooked ravioli" and praised the "moist and flavorful striped bass." For the first two or three years, things went well. Silvano was effectively increasing his profits by 150 percent—netting half the take at Pitti and 100 percent at his namesake restaurant. Giovanni was creating a name for himself. But like the mythical Romulus and Remus, the feuding twin brothers who founded Rome, Silvano and Giovanni inevitably began to bicker. When Silvano opened Da Silvano for lunch on Saturdays (in 1998) and Sundays (in 1999)—a move that directly upped the competition for the brunch crowd, Giovanni saw the move as an act of betrayal, or in his words: "a violation of [Silvano's] duties of loyalty and good faith to Bar Pitti."

By 2000, the men were barely speaking. Giovanni felt slighted and disrespected by Silvano. The latter, meanwhile, felt Giovanni "wanted to take credit for everything." Giovanni yearned for the societal status of his partner (says one insider, "Bar Pitti never really had an identity of its own"). But two years later, in May 2002, Silvano opened yet another boîte: Da Silvano Cantinetta, just south of Da Silvano. The bar was almost a mirror image of Bar Pitti: an informal Tuscan trattoria, complete with bare tabletops, stucco walls, even the same napkins—white paper ones with little roses—that were signature staples at Bar Pitti. In fact, the only substantive difference between the two spots is that Silvano would keep all the profits to himself.

Three months after Cantinetta opened, Giovanni had had enough. He filed an incendiary suit against Silvano, seeking to force him to sell his share in Bar Pitti. The charges included theft, harassment, interference and betrayal. In the suit, Giovanni accused his partner of poaching customers and wooing them to Da Silvano, where he wouldn't have to split his profits. He claimed that Silvano did little to warrant the $52,000 salary he drew from his involvement in Bar Pitti, saying "he spends virtually no time working. Silvano is not usually present on Bar Pitti's premises during operating hours."

When Silvano was there, claimed Giovanni, he "sexually harassed and humiliated Bar Pitti's female staff members" and subjected diners to his "erratic and volatile rantings." Carolyn Messina, a former waitress at Bar Pitti, testified in the suit, "One of the more humiliating aspects of dealing with Silvano is trying to explain and/or make excuses to customers who have borne witness to his erratic, volatile drunken ranting." Another waitress, Daniela Fonseca, complained that Silvano "came up behind me and pinched my bottom." But butts aren't all Silvano was accused of pinching: Giovanni also claimed his partner stole "recipes handed down" by his family, as well as supplies, suppliers and staff for use at either Da Silvano or Cantinetta. (Silvano scoffs, "I created the menu. I made it to be simple and different.") Giovanni's suit also made much of those napkins printed with red roses found at both Bar Pitti and Cantinetta. Silvano laughs bitterly when reminded of this. "I had chosen the napkins to begin with. What's the big deal?"

As the case wended its way through the legal system, says Giovanni's counsel Norris Wolff, "Giovanni and Silvano went back and forth at each other's throats." Giovanni wanted out. Silvano wanted out, but they couldn't decide on a fair price for the latter's share of Bar Pitti. After a long and fruitless exchange, Silvano fired back with a countersuit in 2005, asking for the dissolution of the partnership. In it, Silvano accused Giovanni of causing the assets of Bar Pitti to be "looted, wasted, misappropriated and diverted." Still unable to agree on a price, the court ordered an independent party to determine an equitable settlement.

In May 2005, Da Silvano marked its 30th anniversary with a party. Giovanni wasn't invited and, in fact, was on vacation at the time. According to "Page Six," when Giovanni found out that Silvano had invited some of his staff for a drink, he furiously called Bar Pitti from Italy and said anyone crossing the battle line would immediately be fired.

In 2006, Silvano sold his share of Bar Pitti for terms, according to Wolff, that "[we were] very happy with." This should have been the end of the saga. But it wasn't. One Da Silvano regular who prefers anonymity to getting blacklisted says that Silvano likes to remind customers that "[Giovanni's] place is for show. Mine is for food." For the most part, these neighbors and former business partners pretended not to see each other every day, even though they stand mere feet apart. Silvano says, "The last time I spoke to him was at my lawyer's."

But this past August, Alessandro Bandini, a maître d' at Da Silvano, decided to venture into enemy territory and greet a friend who was dining outside at Bar Pitti. Once he had crossed the property line, Giovanni confronted him, fuming like a junkyard dog protecting his turf. Enraged that a Silvano sergeant was trespassing on his territory, Giovanni chased Alessandro down Sixth Avenue, screaming all the way. According to Alessandro—a tall Tuscan with a Samson-like mane of hair—the owner threatened, "Don't come anywhere near my restaurant again, or I'll have your head shaved!" The squabble gave Giovanni a chance to publicly sling arrows at his old foe. "I hope this is the last time we ever have to deal with people from Silvano again," he told Page Six Magazine. "We've had enough of them." Fat chance.

On a late October morning, the sun is streaming down Sixth Avenue. Leyla stands outside her father's eatery in a Georgetown hoodie, speaking rapidly into her BlackBerry about Scuderia, the new restaurant she and her father are planning to open across the street. It will launch this winter and be an informal Tuscan restaurant, not unlike Cantinetta—and also not unlike Bar Pitti. Silvano has yet to arrive, and most likely he is still asleep next to his second wife, New Yorker cartoonist and author Marisa Acocella Marchetto, whom he married in 2004, shortly after his divorce from Vivian. (Giovanni and his wife, Michele Pia Tognozzi, live just around the corner on Leroy Street.)

Next door, inside Bar Pitti, Giovanni is already there, standing defensively behind his bar. A swath of white hair crowns his otherwise bald head like laurels and his blue eyes scan his calm restaurant. After a decade of fighting, Giovanni looks like a weary warrior. His eyes crinkle with annoyance and fatigue, as he offers, "I have two things to say: First, I am tired of talking about Silvano. Second, whatever he says about me, I don't care." Giovanni slurps his espresso down in a single gulp and slams the demitasse down on the saucer. Bitter grounds are all that are left in the bottom.