"There are four times in my life I could have been dead, I should have been dead, that I can't even talk about — but something spared me. That lets me know I'm here because I still have something to do," Martorano tells me. "I think about death a lot. The way I am, I can't sleep. My mind keeps going all night long. You tell me, what kind of a God would invent a hell where you burn for eternity?

"Maybe there isn't anything after this. When did God stop talking to us? I listen, and I don't hear nothing."

He had his triple bypass in November 2007. When surgeon Kenneth Herskowitz operated, he discovered three major arteries that were "99.9 percent clogged; they call it the widowmaker," Martorano says. Martorano's grandmother and aunt had both died unexpectedly of heart failure. And a sudden heart attack killed Martorano's father at age 54 in the family home on Philadelphia's South Newkirk Street. Martorano, an only child, had to zip up the body bag and help carry his father from the living room to a waiting undertaker's hearse. He has never quite recovered from the loss.

Every dish is cooked to order, with lots of garlic.
C. Stiles
Every dish is cooked to order, with lots of garlic.
Martorano, with Landi (right), samples imported cured meats and cheeses at Prime Line.
C. Stiles
Martorano, with Landi (right), samples imported cured meats and cheeses at Prime Line.

"For a while after the operation, I just felt empty," he says. "You can be gone in a second, like that." He snaps his fingers. "What's it all for? I should be dead, like my father, but something intervened."

Soon, his plan to grow the business and turn his name into a brand became a mission, spurring him to new heights of obsession. The plan includes a national brand of products and an as-yet-unpublished autobiographical cookbook tentatively titled What's Up, Cuz? (Martorano habitually calls his male friends Cuz, because in South Philly, "everybody is your cousin," and the women in his life are "Babygirl" or "Princess.") He says his celebrity friends have expressed interest in making the book into a movie. His line of five tomato sauces is carried in 350 stores nationwide, including New York's Dean & DeLuca; he's close to an arrangement to sell them on the Home Shopping Network and at Whole Foods. The jars retail at Publix for $9.99: They're loaded with extra-virgin olive oil, San Marzano tomatoes, whole sweet cloves of garlic, fresh herbs, and lots of heat. If all goes well, he hopes to produce a line of frozen meatballs, gnocchi, and bottled salad dressings. The big-picture plan is to sell the whole line to a mega company like Campbell's Soup. He has arranged to bottle his own pinot grigio and Chianti in partnership with an Italian winemaker, with his trademark capital M on the label. A new restaurant at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood is scheduled to open within a year. And he's negotiating a possible partnership with rapper Jay-Z on a restaurant called the 4040 Club in Atlantic City.

"I'd like to have my restaurants in all 17 of the Hard Rocks in the country," he says, "and maybe even in Dubai." He dreams of a cooking show, part Food Network, part American Bandstand, where he'd cook and play music while people danced, and of an animated cooking program for children. At the end of the road, he envisions a triumphant return to his hometown. He has his eye on a sports/shopping complex now in development called Philly Live. "Right now, today," he says proudly, "my name alone is worth $5 million."


Martorano lives with his 80-year-old mother, Lillian; his wife of 25 years, Debbie; and his two sons, Joey, 21, and Steve Jr., 20, a few miles from the restaurant in a waterfront house with an almost willfully plain façade. The whole family, with the exception of Lillian, works at Café Martorano — Lillian retired from working the door a few years ago. Joey runs the DJ booth when his dad is busy or out of town; Steve Jr. waits tables or mans the front door — it's Steve Jr. who has shown an aptitude to take over the business. When I pull up to the house one morning, there's no room in the driveway; it's crammed with luxury cars: a midnight-blue Hummer, a black Range Rover, the Escalade, and a Mercedes CL63. Martorano drives the Mercedes on Sundays. "I look at these cars and all I see is insurance bills," Martorano says. "But I want to do for my kids what my dad couldn't do for me. When he died, he left us $4,000."

Even after 15 years, home is always Philadelphia. "In all these years, I haven't made a single friend here," Debbie says. Her mother-in-law is even more direct. "I never liked it in Florida," she says. "I'd go back in a minute. You knew people there; you knew everybody. Down here, nobody talks to each other."

Inside, the house is spotless and austere, modern black and white, leather sectional sofas and black shelves holding Martorano memorabilia: bottles of olive oil and vinegar, jars of sauce, CDs, books signed by celebrity customers. On otherwise-bare walls hang a few bright paintings of Frank Sinatra. A crucifix is tacked up over the master bedroom door. A tiny Pom-Chi and two papillons — who go by Frankie, Dino, and Sammy — set up an echoing cacophony. Martorano emerges and bends down to nuzzle the Pom-Chi. He's freshly showered post-workout, wearing pressed jeans and a wife beater, a white Concord C1 chronograph watch strapped to his wrist, and smelling of cologne. "He won't tell anybody what cologne he wears," Debbie confides to me later. "And if somebody figures it out, he starts mixing them. He's always done that, since I first met him."

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