Who is Sylvia? She's a French-speaking Israeli who, with her Israeli husband, opened an Italian restaurant a couple of months ago in Rockville. Why Italian? Because of who's tucked away in the kitchen:
Aldo, formerly a chef at Amalfi. Where is this place? Let's put it this way. If they held a Most-Out-of-the-Way-Location contest among good suburban restaurants, Amalfi would score high, but Sylvia's would win hands down. Sylvia's is hidden in a small office building not far from the old county landfill, surrounded on all sides by moving companies, auto painting shops and dry-wall specialists. If the CIA had put its headquarters here, the location would still be a secret.
The neighborhood notwithstanding, this is an appealing little place. A small bar lines the narrow outer area, leading to a neat, simple dining room in back--a dozen or so tables, creamy walls, soft lighting and everything immaculate. (The appeal is compromised a bit by the cheesy FM station playing in the background. If the place prospers, a modest investment in a few Italian-flavored audiotapes might do wonders for the aura.)
If you're familiar with Amalfi or the Pines of Rome, you won't find any big surprises at Sylvia's: a half-dozen or so each of pastas, shellfish and veal dishes, plus the usual list of appetizers and desserts. The wine list is small and Italian, its prices reasonable. This may be a simple sort of menu, but the emphasis on veal and shellfish demands top-quality raw materials and careful execution. Sylvia's manages nicely on both counts--mostly.
The appetizer highlight is the mussel soup, which is no soup in the ordinary sense. Fifteen gleaming mussels, perfectly fresh and perfectly cooked, bathe in a broth of natural juices brightened by diced garlic and herbs. Wonderful, and at $4, a bargain to boot. (You can also get the mussels in red sauce. Don't.) There's more treasure to be mined in the appetizer list. The fried zucchini, for example--thin, perfectly uniform slicing, just a light coating of egg batter, fresh oil and a quick trip in and out of the fryer. Another solid appetizer choice is sweet red pepper in vinegar and oil with fresh Italian parsley and minced garlic. If you're meeting someone special after dinner, note that the delicately flavored white bean appetizer is relatively garlic-free and will keep you lovable. And speaking of lovable, if you happen in when Aldo has made his homemade ravioli in butter, don't fail to have it as a shared appetizer.
Salads here are dull. For the price of two of them, a couple would be better advised to share a big antipasto.
Good bread in an Italian restaurant generally means fresh, thick-crusted, hearth-baked loaves, bought daily from a good Italian baker. At Sylvia's, there's a different kind of treat: dense, yeasty, thin-crusted, pan-baked bread that's made in Sylvia's (or Aldo's) kitchen the way you'd make it at home. Fifty cents extra brings the ultimate in garlic bread: the homemade bread topped with plenty of fresh minced garlic and parsley.
As if that weren't treat enough, the white pizza is another beautiful dinner accompaniment, with just the thinnest crunch at bottom, a thin, chewy dough above and a light sprinkle of good grated cheese and garlic. On the other hand, don't bother with the red pizza; you'd do far better in a good pizzeria.
Among the entrees, the score is clear and simple: shellfish and veal dishes mainly outstanding, pastas indifferent to good. Those wonderful mussels in the appetizer can be had with linguine, as can equally good calmari. Clams tend toward the big, rubber-textured kind. Shrimp are usually first-rate at Sylvia's--big, fresh, sweet-flavored, cooked with care. One of the best ways to have them is the simplest: with just garlic and butter, over linguine.
The veal excels for what it isn't. It isn't pounded, it isn't sliced razor-thin to disguise toughness, it isn't fatty, and it isn't overcooked. If simplicity appeals to you, try the veal francese, in a light, buttery batter. For something more complex, the marsala sauce is a velvety gem, the harshness of the alcohol carefully cooked away. Sometimes Aldo makes it with cream. Bliss. You may find yourself eating the leftover sauce with a spoon. His knack for vegetables, by the way, goes beyond frying zucchini; the accompaniments to the veal dishes, like broccoli or mushrooms, are beautifully done.
The big disappointments here are the soups, which are dull, and the tomato sauces, which tend to be harsh, acid and bitter. So if you're after pasta, aim for the white-sauced dishes. Fettucine Sylvia, for example, presents the noodles in a delicate cream and cheese sauce in which there's enough restraint with the cheese so that you can taste the fresh cream shining through. (Not all the white-sauced dishes succeed; shrimp carbonara one night was bland and puddled in oil.)
Although it's topped with a little of the not-so-hot red sauce, the eggplant parmigiana is a gem nonetheless, one of the best renditions we've had. The eggplant is cut longitudinally into thick slices, battered very lightly, and fried quickly, so it stands up firm on the plate. The cheese is delicate and nonstringy and it's applied with restraint, so you can taste that good eggplant and batter.
The standard Italian desserts are fine: the cannoli's wrapper is crisp and its filling not excessively sweet; the tortoni tastes of real cream and egg, as it should; and the spumoni actually has a few slices of fruit in it. Beyond this old-hat trio, there's an occasional special, likeefresh strawberries in marsala. What a beautiful idea: big, ripe berries plunked in a glass of good, sweet wine. You eat the berries, you drink the wine. It couldn't be simpler. Or better.
They say bad money drives out good. Maybe the opposite holds true for Italian restaurants. Maybe if there were more places like Sylvia's in more neighborhoods around the Beltway, they'd drive out all those wretched places that give moderately priced Italian food a bad name. (But don't count on it.)
Two cautionary notes: (1) Aldo is in the kitchen only at dinner time; the menu goes middle-eastern for lunch. (2) At this writing, dinner business is still light, and a sudden influx of trade could swamp the place. So, as the Three Stooges used to say, "Spread out."