By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
"What I'm doing is South Philly home cooking, like your mother would cook. But where your ma would use Cento olive oil, she would use Progresso bread crumbs, I'm using the best-quality extra virgin oil from Italy; I'm using Giuseppe Cocco pasta, which is top-of-the-line. I'm using Badio Coltibuono vinegar, Poma Rosa San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes in the world. It's the same concept but with better products. I use sea salt; it has a different mineral content. I had a guy try to sell me a pasta cooker: It could be I'm the only person left who cooks pasta to order. I make every order with fresh water. I got a guy in the kitchen who does nothing but make sure there's water boiling."
Martorano produces his entire menu — 18 cooked appetizers, 18 pastas, 15 entrées, and the specials of the night — from fried calamari and rice balls to risotto and Kobe New York strip steak — on a line of gas burners and a grill: "Everything is made à la minute," he says. "It's cooked to order in a sauté pan or on the grill. We don't precook or use convection ovens." He has three refrigerators, no freezer, and no walk-in cooler. "That means I gotta keep bringing food in every day. So it's fresh. Nothing is ever frozen. Not the fish. Not the meat." He samples a sliver of prosciutto. "That's a nice piece of bacon you've got here," he says to Landi.
"We've had customers who came in specifically to see what Steve is buying for Martorano's," Trivelli says. "There have been three or four restaurants that have opened to deliberately put him out of business. It would surprise you the degree of jealousy and gossip. This is a hard business."
"After a month or two, they figure out they can't afford to keep up the quality," Martorano interjects. "They start to buy cheaper products; they go downhill. Then guess who goes out of business? Not me.
"People complain about the prices on my menu. I'm getting $24 for a plate of pasta. But if they knew what I'm paying to get the quality ingredients of what I serve, there'd be no more complaints. Look at these anchovies, packed in salt — there's no comparison with ones in oil. It's a completely different flavor."
Even the espresso he serves comes under scrutiny. "I'm gonna go ahead and change over to the Lavazza," he tells Landi, gesturing at the coffee display.
Martorano put on a Sunday Supper event in the High Rollers Room at Hollywood's Hard Rock Casino in late February. Sitting next to me that night was actor Joe Gannascoli, who played gay mobster Vito Spatafore on The Sopranos. Gannascoli, a big man and an accomplished chef himself who once worked the kitchens at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, put away plate after plate of Martorano's cooking, from a bowl of pasta fagiole to a bracciole wrapped in pork skin to the last bite of cannoli. When I couldn't finish my spaghetti, he asked for my leftovers and finished those too. He did the same with my pork-skin bracciole. Gannascoli's reaction is what I had begun to call "The Martorano Effect": an inability to stop eating, followed, days later, by an insatiable craving for more. I was hardly immune: Four courses in and already stuffed, I couldn't stop eating the Philadelphia cheese steak Martorano put in front of me; it might have been the best sandwich of my life. He slices prime rib eye razor thin and sautés it in extra-virgin olive oil, adds onions cooked down in butter for an hour until they've carmelized, and melted American cheese stuffed into a big, soft roll — a street sandwich dolled up in bling. In style and substance, it's the equivalent of a six-figure diamond chain worn over a wife beater: It struck me suddenly that you could say the same for just about all of Martorano's cooking.
"Steve has a passion for taste," Tom Angelo, Martorano's attorney and best friend, told me later. "He's like an artist, and the incredible thing is, he does things on the fly. I can still taste some of the things he made up on the spur of the moment: egg rolls with chopped sausage inside, a lettuce wrap, a flat breakfast pizza with bacon and eggs on top, and I can tell you, he's the only chef in town who improvises like that. You'll ask him a couple of months later and he won't even remember that he made this stuff."
"People get straight off the plane from New York and drive here," a regular customer, Mitch Grossman, said one day as we chatted outside Martorano's. "I eat in this joint four times a week when I'm in town. Whatever he makes, he makes it better than anyone else. One time, my daughter came in and asked for macaroni and cheese. It wasn't even on the menu, and off the top of his head, he made it up. She said, 'Dad, this is the best mac and cheese I've ever tasted.' "