In 1994, when South Beach was a sleeping giant just beginning to stir, Sport Café became the first budget Italian restaurant to set up shop. We forget how quickly times have changed: Sport's location, Washington Avenue just off Fifth Street, was still considered an iffy place to walk around after dark. Before long you couldn't swing a strand of spaghetti in the neighborhood without hitting at least two Italian eateries. But during its decade-long run, this festive, informal spot reigned as the most popular. Then ownership squabbles quashed it.
Sylvano's, a bargain Italian restaurant that premiered last June on Alton Road and Eighth Street, might be considered Sport Café west. It offers just about everything that place did, beginning with the sports theme. Five TV screens strategically placed around the room are tuned to one sporting program or another, and photographs on the walls spotlight athletes of yesteryear. The menu sports Sport's Italian food, a popularly priced pastiche of pizzas, pastas, risottos, salads, seafood, and meats. There is one more similarity between the two venues: One of Sport Café's three proprietors runs the new establishment. His name is Sylvano.
Alton and Eighth is far less dicey than Washington and Fifth was a decade ago, yet it stands apart as one of the few SoBe regions that hasn't had every inch of real estate snapped up by restaurateurs. Although Taste Bakery Café, Oliver's, and Yoko's Japanese Restaurant operate nearby, the streets here still are not teeming with pedestrian traffic except, that is, for the throngs of patrons spilling from Sylvano's every night. It is a young, comely, and spirited clientele, well represented by Europeans and South Americans who have seemingly rematerialized from their seats at Sport. By the time you have woven your way through Sylvano's crowd and taken a seat at one of the olive green suede chair cushions or banquettes, a good time feels almost inevitable.
Folks are not coming here simply for the quality of cuisine. Indeed it is decent, dependable Italian fare, but nothing that will conjure memories of that meal in the Piazza San Marco during your last visit to Venice. On the other hand, unlike most so-called budget Italian joints, prices are actually low. Pastas, for instance, run $8 to $12 (Café Prima Pasta charges $12 to $20, Oggi Caffe $14 to $20). Two people at Sylvano's could ostensibly dine on pappardelle with lamb ragu, and gnocchi with pesto and string beans ($9.95 apiece), and share a bottle of 2003 Nero D'Avola Sicilianwine ($22), for a little more than $20 each. Plus they'd be privy to a basket of fresh, rustic baguettes. It should be noted that Sylvano's second location, recently opened at 124 Collins Ave., isn't quite the bargain.
Those on a really tight budget might want to split a thin, blistery-crusted margherita pizza for $6.95. The same price brings a sprightly spinach salad with goat cheese and lots of chopped peanuts and bacon, or a starter of eggplant parmigiana though I'd suggest skipping the latter, for a barrage of melted mozzarella cheese buried the eggplant's presence. An extra dollar affords the other hot antipasti: steamed mussels and fried calamari. Best way to sample the cold antipasti is via a mixed plate of thinly sliced prosciutto, Genoa and coppa salami, bresaola (the Lombard specialty of salt-cured, air-dried beef), a small dome of bufala mozzarella, tomatoes, niçoise olives, and hearts of palm.
Seafood entrées are limited to fried shrimp with honey mustard, catch of the day, and tuna "Mediteranea," which arrived as a stout slab of grilled fish smothered in sweetly sautéed cherry tomatoes punctuated with salty exclamation marks of olives and capers. The treatment was better than the tuna, which was a tad tough and not of the highest grade. For $14.95 perhaps we shouldn't expect the very best of anything, although pollo Milanese was as good as it gets, the flattened, breaded, generously portioned chicken breast pan-fried golden brown and positively succulent.
Lasagna was toothsome too, though those who like their noodles heavily sauced and piled high with oodles of mozzarella and ricotta might be disappointed by this low-level (a duplex, I think), ricottaless version favored by northern Italians. Others will appreciate the firm, chewy noodles, fulsome Bolognese-style beef, and subtle application of cheese and tomato sauce. Orecchiette satisfied with tender cubes of eggplant, grated ricotta salata cheese, and just enough red sauce to coat the pasta. And though the arborio grains of our porcini risotto were overcooked and lacked classic risotto creaminess, the rich Parmesan cheese, woodsy mushrooms, and heady aroma of white wine merged into one winsome flavor.
An evening special of grilled skirt steak didn't let us down either, the medium-rare beef imbued with a pleasantly smoky taste. Like most nonpasta entrées, meats are accompanied by vegetable and starch, which during our visits translated to mashed potatoes and broccoli. On one occasion the potatoes were tasty in a milky sort of way, but the consistency was too wet and heavy; on a return trip they were properly fluffed. Broccoli was barely heated both times, as were various other foods that were supposed to be hot. Not sure of the cause of this, but serving the food on cold plates doesn't help.
If you have a thing for mascarpone and are looking to put on a few pounds, then Sylvano's tiramisu is a must. A soup bowl of this dessert comes almost exclusively filled with the sweet, creamy cheese, a sliver of espresso-soaked lady fingers lining the bottom like a pie crust.
The difference between eating at a lively place such as Sylvano's, as opposed to a sparsely populated restaurant, is like the difference between watching a comedy film in a theater filled with laughing people, or alone in an empty room. A communal interaction with others, no matter how unconscious, lends any experience a sense of vitality. It is this high-octane energy, along with low prices, amiable service, and edifying food, that makes dining at Sylvano's a good, cheap thrill.
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