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Steve Martorano, it's fair to say, is not a patient man. If you call him during the day, the chef-owner of Café Martorano in Fort Lauderdale won't even answer the phone, since he doesn't take reservations. If by some miracle he does pick up, he'll probably be curt, limiting your conversation to a "Tell me what you want and be done with it" exchange. As one of the most popular proprietors in South Florida, he's no doubt correct that unless you're one of his purveyors, he's got no time for you. And like many known Mafia mavens who share his last name, he's not shy about expressing himself.
Indeed, I know several critics who've been so put off by his laissez-faire attitude (not to mention his language, which tends toward frequent F-bomb explosions) that Martorano's official newspaper ratings have gone down because of it, from four stars to three and a half. If you search the Websites of South Florida papers, it's impossible to locate any of the write-ups without really great Internet skills, though I know for a fact that Lyn Farmer of the Sun-Sentinel critiqued the place rather recently. The only review I could find, by C.B. Marino of the Miami Herald Broward edition, sums up Martorano's perfectly: "In the eloquent vernacular of Sopranos star Steven Van Zant (Silvio Dante), Café Martorano isn't only a restaurant, it's a bleep-worthy event."
Steve Martorano, it's fair to say, is not a chef who caters to the typical restaurant reviewer. I'm told by an acquaintance that his philosophy is quotable: "Fuck the critics. You guys [the diners] are my critics."
3343 E. Oakland Park Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308
Damn, but I like this guy. He may not be a pal to my ilk, but he's a downright teddy bear to his customers. And by that, I don't mean that he comes around glad-handing and kissing babies. Simply, he runs the most egalitarian, hip restaurant in the tri-county area. Everyone -- be you critic, celebrity, or regular -- waits, as long as it takes, for one of the ten or so tables (with the exception of Dan Marino, who's been known to wait in his car for takeout). During your wait, you'll watch the off-duty cop who's been hired as a security guard outside scarf down a plate of pasta and, if you've hit the joint at the right moment, you'll witness a few of Broward County's more charming asses doing a slow jiggle on the bar top.
Don't believe that no one gets special treatment? I give you myself as an example. I tread a line as thin as angel hair pasta with my pair of New Times columns. In Miami, I'm critic-at-large, visible as far as my height allows, frequenter of openings and media dinners and wine lunches and charity functions and just about any other event that allows me a close-up of the restaurant industry. But in Broward and Palm Beach counties, I review restaurants anonymously, make reservations under false names, pay with cash, act invisibly. Only once in a very great while do I encounter a conflict -- for instance, when a Miami chef who is known to me opens a place in Palm Beach, the way former Astor Place chef Johnny Vinczencz is doing in Delray Beach at the newly revamped Sundy House.
Or when I head to a place like Café Martorano to celebrate a pair of birthdays, take a stretch limo to the restaurant to mark the occasion, and join the beverage account manager from Southern Wine & Spirits who supplies the restaurant with wine, another Southern district manager, a well-known chef who has been quoted in print that Café Martorano is his favorite restaurant, and a few other industry insiders. One of them asked my permission to tell Martorano that I was a member of the party. "If he finds out afterwards," he told me, "he'll be mad."
Frankly, I don't care if Martorano gets as pissed as a puppy tied to a fire hydrant. But in the end, I agreed to be identified not because Martorano despises critics but because he stands by his dislike. In other words, he's not just paying lip service like some chefs I know who hate me and my kind but then give us the best tables in the house and try to seduce us with off-the-menu food and drink. I knew Martorano wouldn't kiss my ass with the same mouth that curses it.
And he didn't. I wasn't introduced to him. He didn't acknowledge me. He didn't come over to greet the others at my table -- they went to him. And that's after we waited so long for a table that I stopped checking my watch and just got flat-out pissed myself -- as in drunk. In fact, the only perks we got were what the regulars often receive: South Philly cheese steaks, cut into hunks and passed around the bar area to keep us from eating our own limbs.
So why the fuss about this particular Italian restaurant, which is as subtle as a mob hit man?
Probably because Martorano has succeeded in creating something that few restaurateurs have done: mystique, pure and simple. The six? seven? eight?-year-old Café Martorano is Tantra without the incense, Joe's minus the Manhattanites. Not only is Martorano notorious for not answering questions; he doesn't publish a menu and refuses to allow patrons to commit atrocities such as grating cheese on a seafood dish.