Logic would seem to dictate that the best location for a suburban restaurant is a busy shopping mall or a spiffy "office-retail complex." But there are a few restaurants that defy such conventional wisdom and succeed anyway. Sylvia's is one of them. Situated in the unlikeliest of places on a quiet side street of building-supply houses and auto paint shops, it's packed nearly every night. The secret of its success is simple: consistently good Italian food at a reasonable price. Sylvia's is a nice-looking place, too, all decorated in beige and softly lit.
The menu runs to the usual Italian pasta, veal and shellfish dishes with the usual tomato and cream-based sauces. Among the appetizers, fried zucchini is impeccably light. Sweet red peppers with anchovies are delightful, with a tart-sweet-hot flavor abetted by plenty of minced garlic.
There is a lot of garlic in the white beans, too, which are nicely flavored but a bit mushy. Mozzarella in carrozza, a breaded and fried cheese, is commendably ungreasy, but the anchovy sauce would be better served on the side. "Mussel soup," really a big platter of perfectly fresh, plump mussels in a delightful broth, remains one of the shining lights on Sylvia's menu, and at $5.50 it's big enough for two to share. Don't forget to order a small white pizza, crisp bottomed and garlicky, to munch with your appetizers.
Beyond the mussels, we've found the shellfish generally very good here. Calamari is first-class, beautifully sweet and tender, served with nicely chewy linguini and a delightfully chunky, fruity tomato sauce. (The tomato sauce that comes with the linguini side orders, on the other hand, has been unpleasantly tinny and acidic.)
Shrimp have been excellent, too, big and tender. Have them with tomato sauce or just butter and garlic, but beware of the ones listed as "gamberetto," nicely battered but then buried in an excess of anchovy sauce. If our recollection of earlier visits holds true, the combination seafood platter with linguini is another good bet, and a good buy at $9.75.
The veal is pale, tender and not unduly pounded, and most veal dishes are modestly priced at about $9. To taste the meat most clearly, have veal picatta, in the simplest of lemon sauces. For something with more zip to it, you won't go wrong with veal marsala, with a pleasantly robust, sweetly boozy sauce. There are some veal dishes at $12 and up listed under "specials" that are good, but may not be worth the price difference. Among them is the appealing Sylvia's special, with eggplant, prosciutto ham and a very good tomato sauce. (Eggplant lovers can be made happy with the excellent eggplant parmigiana, and for only $6.50.)
Among the pastas, the cannelloni is unusually good, the pasta wrapper delicate yet firm, the ground veal-spinach filling beautifully flavored. (Have it with the red sauce.) But the agnolotti and tortellini are ordinary, as is the thick cream sauce that accompanies them.
Dessert? A good, not oversweet cannoli, a pleasant tartufo ice-cream ball covered with dark chocolate.