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Martorano taught himself to cook as a hungry kid. He remembers getting up in the middle of the night, practically sleepwalking, to boil pasta. "They used to find me asleep on the couch hugging a bowl of macaroni," he says. "Finally my grandmother had to move a bureau in front of the bedroom door so I couldn't get out at night."
In his early 20s, Martorano started his own sandwich business, working first out of his apartment. When his landlord objected and the authorities started nosing around, he moved the operation into his mother's basement. "I'd take orders, I'd make sandwiches, I'd take the phone off the hook and go deliver them," he says. "Then I'd come back and put the phone back on the hook." A few years later, he and his new wife, Debbie, made an unexpected killing selling homemade Italian water ices, a Philadelphia regional specialty; they used the proceeds to open Martorano's first sitdown restaurant, Macaroni's. He lost everything in the sluggish economy of the early '90s. He closed Macaroni's and moved to Fort Lauderdale, hoping to start over.
Martorano based Café Martorano's menu on the weekly menu of Italian families in Philadelphia. Every Sunday, his grandmother made meatballs or sausage over rigatoni. She fortified her Sunday gravy with pig's feet, ribs, and pig-skin bracciole. "You know how you woke up in Philly on Sunday?" he writes in his yet-to-be-published cookbook. "No fuckin' alarm clock. You smelled the meatballs. You smelled the tomatoes. You smelled the meat frying." On Monday, mothers all over Philadelphia made a pot of soup. Tuesday and Thursday, the family ate leftover gravy and pasta. Friday night, they gathered around a bowl of linguine with clams or macaroni and peas. It's all still on his menu, right down to the pig's feet.
Customers order from the menu or they tell the waiter: Ask Steve to cook for me. Given free rein, Martorano is at the top of his game, sending out fried meatballs with hot and sweet peppers, cheese ravioli in fresh marinara, steamed mussels, bucatini all'Amatriciana, spicy chicken wings, a whole chicken Parmigiana sandwich on an Italian roll, tubetti with peas and onions, veal Sinatra with lobster meat, mushrooms, and cream — plate after plate in an aggressive, nurturing, smothering parade of food, until the customer, wooed and stuffed beyond his capacities, is entirely spent.
"There's a soft part of Steve you'd never guess at," Angelo says. "You have this stereotype of the Philadelphia tough guy, and he looks the part. But he surprises you. He's one of the least judgmental people I've ever met and also the most loyal. He truly loves making people happy."
"People gravitate to me," Martorano says. "If I can't help you money-wise, I'll feed you. But if my balls get twisted, I'll shut you down."
Nobody goes to Café Martorano for peace and quiet. Simultaneously, Martorano cooks and operates a high-tech DJ station beside the stoves, orchestrating light shows, disco music, and clips from gangster movies. Diners slurp spaghetti as Tony Montana unloads in the final scene of Scarface; the chef turns up the heat under a pan of clams with one hand and the volume on a Marvin Gaye tune with the other. Hollywood gore, linguine, Motown... it all comes together in a weird synchronicity. Or he dims the lights and sends showers of silver spots from the disco balls twirling across tables and chairs. Ladies 18 to 70 hoist themselves up on the zinc bar to dance; parties clink glasses of Dom Pérignon and howl with laughter; white-aproned waiters slip between the cracks like garlic-scented ghosts, holding trays of veal Sinatra overhead. What's more, even despite the distractions, nobody is picking dispiritedly at a salad: Even the thinnest gamine beauty at any table will hardly pause for breath until she's cleaned her plate. This is a place of high appetites.
His work has paid off in accolades. Food critic Max Jacobson, writing for Gourmet magazine, said of Martorano's meatballs: "This may be the best meatball in the world." Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel was so impressed with those same blobs of fried beef, after
Martorano opened his second restaurant at the Rio, Las Vegas, in March 2007, using the same model of high-end Italian-American home cooking coupled with movies and music. Alone in his hotel room in Las Vegas, Martorano watched the film Rocky Balboa every night for eight months. The film portrays Sly Stallone as Rocky, a celebrated retired boxer from Philly who's driven to do one last demonstration match against the current world champion, Mason Dixon. We understand, along with Balboa, that Dixon has never really been challenged to his core — he's strong, but he lacks heart. And we understand too that the only thing that will keep the aging Rocky from being murdered in the ring is pure stubborn will.