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Steve Martorano's heroes are tattooed across his six-foot, 240-pound frame. Frank Sinatra looks out from under his trademark fedora on one shoulder; on the other, the title of an Intruders song reads "I'll Always Love My Mama." Most of Martorano's right calf is taken up with the image of Padre Pio, the modern-day saint who bled from his hands and heart for 50 years — until death finally put an end to his public suffering. Only Martorano's left calf is ink-free: A mean pink scar where surgeons stole a vein for a triple bypass last year runs seven inches below his knee.
Martorano is chef and owner of 15-year-old Café Martorano in Fort Lauderdale, a prosperous man running the most successful restaurant in the city. I met Martorano for the first time late one afternoon a couple of hours before the place opened for the night, as low sunlight slid through the high windows onto gleaming white tile floors and chrome bar stools. Servers were scrubbing, mopping, and wiping down every square inch; we would have to move our table a couple of times so they could get under it. Most of Martorano's staff has been with him for more than a decade, and they answer to his pet nicknames: Noodles, Mikey Muscles, Bibz, Drama, Scotty the Body, Nunzio, Flea, Dika, Boom Boom, and Pee Wee.
Martorano is 51 years old, drives a black Cadillac Platinum Escalade, and wears a $120,000 diamond chain necklace with a bling-encrusted cross draped over his wife beater T-shirts. In 1993, he moved to South Florida from South Philadelphia, where he'd started out selling Italian hoagies from his apartment. He rented an 800-square-foot storefront restaurant near the beach at 3343 E. Oakland Park Blvd. with, as he remembers it, just $40 and a credit card to his name.
"When we first opened, I used to take a $20 bill out of the till once a week. I'd go around to the bars, like September's on Federal Highway," Martorano told me. "I'd buy a $4 glass of wine and tip the bartender $16; you'd see the guy's eyes light up. Then I'd tell the bartender, 'Listen, if anybody wants to eat, send them over to Martorano's.' That's how we got started." When it opened, Café Martorano posted a different menu every night on a chalkboard and brought in $500 a week. The 14-table restaurant now grosses more than $5 million annually. "There was never a time when we didn't make money," he says.
Launching into a story or sizing someone up, Martorano crosses his huge arms and leans back, nostrils flared and eyes narrowed. He looks like a cross between Mr. Clean and a cagey bull judging the ideal soft spot for a goring. "It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward," he likes to say, quoting from the movie Rocky Balboa. Life for Martorano is a long fight, round after round of punishment, and if you didn't know he was a cook, you'd take him for a retired heavyweight. His nose is flat, and a scar bisects one brow, as if his face has taken a few direct hits; his close-set eyes are underscored by two half-moon shadows on either cheek. His flab-free body is pummeled by obsessive, seven-day workouts at the Zoo gym on Lauderdale Beach. Speaking with the heavily inflected accents of South Philadelphia — "youse guys," "berfday party" — his voice modulates from a bemused whisper to an escalating roar when he's angry, and in conversation, he locks his listener in an unwavering stare. But his face has the slightly swollen, bleary look of a man who's been denied the comforts of sleep. He is, in fact, an insomniac — awake at his kitchen table during long nights after he closes Café Martorano, planning new recipes and plotting ways to expand his business. "When you truly care about something," he says, "you never rest."
Martorano looks the part of a tough, and he certainly has fewer degrees of separation than most of us from a guy who could break both your legs: His Uncle, Ray Martorano, played a major role in the Philadelphia Mafia wars of the 1980s. But it annoys Martorano when strangers refer to him as being mobbed up — "I walked away from all that a long time ago," he says. Still, traces of his uncle's unyielding temperament surface here and there — in, for instance, the notorious written and unwritten rules at Café Martorano. They don't serve tap water or regular coffee. They don't allow substitutions. The restaurant takes no reservations: Even the TV stars and rappers who frequent the place have to wait in line, sometimes as long as three hours. "Don't break balls!" warns a line at the bottom of the menu.
He fed his first celebrity customer when he'd been open less than a year. "Tony Bennett's people called me up, and they wanted to come in with the whole entourage and eat for free," he recalls. "I said, 'No deal. What, does Tony Bennett give me free concert tickets?' They said, 'So-and-so bar always gives us a free liquor tab.' I said, 'Listen, no fucking deal!' This was my first year; I had just opened. It turned out they came in anyway, and they paid for dinner. They had a good time."