with gallery: Enjoying the handmade cuisine of Abruzzo at Silvio's Organic Ristorante e Pizzeria
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There's an unforgiving dragon in the kitchen of Silvio's Organic Ristorante e Pizzeria on North University. It's the 650-degree deck oven that opens its fiery maw every 11 minutes to spit out a crispy, thin-crust pizza, maybe topped with rapini or potatoes or even figs.
Silvio's pizzas aren't like the thick, slobbery and disturbingly cheesy pizzas that are everywhere. In fact, most of Silvio's pizzas don't have red sauce or mozzarella. They are free-form, with fresh, inventive toppings and a thin, crisp sourdough crust that is a revelation to people used to slabs of dough as thick as drywall and almost as tasty.
Silvio's pizzas, like many of the menu items, change seasonally because the local and organic connection is an important component of the "slow food" that Silvio and Catia Medoro, the owners, make by hand. For example, in the spring, dandelion soup, with leaves from their own garden, is on the menu. Pumpkin ravioli, made with squash from Tantre Farm, is only available in the fall. Silvio Medoro says, "Buying from a local farmer is helping their family, and a lot of times they are customers of mine. So we try to keep our local economy more alive. If I can get something locally, I'll do that."
715 N. University, Ann Arbor
- Hours: Mon-Fri 10 a.m.-midnight; Sat 11 a.m.-midnight; Sun 11 a.m.-midnight
- Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
- Liquor: Beer and wine
- Prices: Inexpensive to moderate. A slice of pizza: $3. A plate of handmade ravioli filled with organic goat cheese, walnuts, ricotta cheese, wild chicory & king trumpet mushrooms: $16
- Noise level: Moderate
- Wheelchair access: Yes
Although the welcome at Silvio's is warm, the ambiance is more Euro-modern cafe than old-world country house, with a red and green color scheme that calls to mind the Italian flag. Lots of small tables topped with red-checked cloths can easily be pulled together for extended family-style dining, though my favorite spot is along the wooden benches near the wall of hydroponically grown basil. Notice also the one brick wall with the outline of Michigan, and the enormous bulletin board where children's artwork is proudly displayed. And be sure to check out the humorous pizza-themed graphic on the restroom door.
Silvio's is an intensely family-oriented place. Silvio and Catia Medoro work at the restaurant around the clock, and each of their four children have worked there too. For better or worse, the Medoros treat their employees like family. And they love to treat their customers like family too. While this more relaxed and personal approach is common in Europe, in America most of us have an expectation that efficiency is more important than warmth. But at Silvio's it's definitely warmth first.
Silvio's menu displays the "Slow Food" logo, which is a good indicator for how to set expectations: Go there for a meal that is delicious, made by hand with love and care from excellent ingredients, and at a reasonable price. But don't go there when you are in a hurry, because it will raise your blood pressure.
What should you eat? If you go on a Friday night, be sure to order the porchetta that Silvio slow-roasts for four hours Fridays only, with rosemary, sage and juniper. Of the pizzas, the truffle with smoked mozzarella and shiitake mushrooms may be the most popular, but my favorite remains the pizza topped with thin slices of potato sprinkled with creamy gorgonzola and piney rosemary.
The sausage and rapini is very good. The capricciosa with house-made tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and kalmata olives is a delicious combination. Their stuffed pizzas are also wonderful, especially the Tonno e Giardiniera Piccante with tuna fish, mozzarella, spicy pickled vegetables, artichokes, and tomatoes.
Their list of excellent beers and thoughtfully chosen wines is solid, and includes all Michigan beers (Bell's, Founders, ABC, Dark Horse, etc.), with a couple of Italian options. And all Italian wines (Olim Bauda, in particular), with a couple of Michigan options.
I went to Silvio's recently on a Sunday with a group of girlfriends who had never been before and had a wonderful meal. A lovely Lelle Prosecco started us off right. Dry, fruity and perfectly celebratory, it paired well with the polenta fritta: crisp-fried triangles of sunny yellow coarse-grain polenta, served with cremini, button and shiitake mushrooms. The mushrooms were the star of this dish, expertly seared with garlic and olive oil and garnished with a sheet of Parmesan. This was a highlight.
We also enjoyed the olives all' ascolana: large-bore green olives stuffed with ground beef and pork, rolled in crumbs and fried until golden. And the caponata was delicious. The menu lists this dense sweet and sour confit of eggplant, peppers, onion, and capers in the "soup" category, but it is really a savory side dish, excellent with their fresh bread.
Although most of the soups they make daily are wonderful, the chicken soup was not a favorite at the table. Although it had large quantities of celery and carrot, it was under-seasoned. A friend observed "it could have used a bay leaf."
One thing that is unique about Silvio's is the Paste Fatte a Mano, or handmade pasta dishes. They regularly have handmade fettucine, ravioli, cannelloni, and potato gnocchi (the gnocchi in particular are pillowy soft and wonderful). Their dedication to preserving increasingly rare culinary traditions is remarkable; they have frequent specials on dishes so time-consuming that even Italian grandmas rarely make them anymore, like trofie with pesto, mugnaia, and spaghetti alla chitarra with tiny clams. All of Silvilo's pasta dishes can be made with whole wheat or gluten-free pasta for $1 extra or with handmade fettuccine for $2 extra. Why would anyone not get the handmade pasta?
We tried the polpette (meatball) with handmade fettuccine that included four organic beef meatballs with garlicky marinara sauce lightly coating springy fettuccine noodles. And the Ravioli di Zucca or Pumpkin Ravioli, with firm, walnut-sized pasta envelopes filled with slightly sweet pumpkin, asiago and mozzarella cheese, eggs, truffle oil, cinnamon and nutmeg spices.
Silvio's attempts to accommodate many health requirements, offering a range of vegan and vegetarian options. In addition, any of their regular pizzas can be made gluten free with a crust that is a "mix of four high-quality gluten-free grains, made in a specially washed gluten-free area."
The gluten-free version of the zucchini pizza was nearly as good as the regular version — topped with small cubes of caramelized zucchini and onion with mozzarella and feta cheese. It was a bit overly oily, but the topping with sweet zucchini was a nice counterpoint to the sharp salty feta. The gluten-free crust was more dense and chewy than the usual crust but had a nice savory flavor.
Tiramisu, made by Catia, is a light sponge cake, soaked in espresso, with clouds of mascarpone and sprinklings of cocoa. Ridiculously rich and delicious.
As for the service, it was warm, enthusiastic and well-meaning, but disorganized. We weren't in a hurry and were enjoying chatting so it wasn't a problem for us. Silvio himself says, "We put effort on improving our service and made progress last year. I know we are still not perfect, but we are always happy to accommodate anybody's needs and want customers to feel like they are eating in a real Italian restaurant and to enjoy their experience at Silvio's." Unprompted, one of my friends actually commented, "I feel like I was in Italy without leaving my home town!"
Their passion to create, share and celebrate real Italian food is what keeps me coming back to Silvio's. I love seeing (and tasting) what they'll offer next. For example, Silvio was recently selected as a delegate to Terra Madre, the international Slow Food conference held bi-annually in Turin, Italy. As a result of that experience, he created a tour de force "Taste of Terra Madre" Piedmonte dinner and wine-pairing earlier this month.
For the holidays, Catia will be making cavicionetti (which they call cavicioni), a traditional Abruzzo-style Christmas fritter filled with grape marmalade, chickpeas, or nutella. And Silvio is working on real Italian panettone with candied orange and lemon peels that he'll offer by pre-order in a CSP for "Community Supported Panettone." He's already making test batches to make sure it won't be too tall to fit in the narrow maw of his oven.