By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
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."
Martorano is probably the only restaurateur who has turned away Madonna; she pulled up in a limo, starving, and he told her he wouldn't have a table for an hour or two. He's heedless of customer complaints. "You don't go to a Frank Sinatra concert and tell him what to sing. So don't come to my restaurant and tell me how to cook. Let me do what I do. I tell customers who complain, 'Look, there are 1,200 restaurants in Fort Lauderdale. If you don't like it here, nobody is holding a gun to your head.'
"If people only knew how much I put in to keep up the quality here. How much I don't sleep. What's that saying, 'The customer is always right'? Who made that up — a customer? Stevie, it's s too hot. Stevie, it's too cold. Well, that's the way I make it. They want to put Parmesan cheese on linguine with clams and then tell me, 'It's too salty.' Well, yeah, it's too salty; you just put fucking half a pound of cheese on it!"
Over the past several years, Martorano has put together an elaborate strategy to make himself nationally famous and his family phenomenally rich, a plan that includes everything from a chain of restaurants and prepared foods to a biographical cookbook and TV shows. Now, it's time for this Incredible Hulk to morph into something much bigger.
We're on our way to visit one of Martorano's specialty food suppliers, Prime Line Distributors in Hollywood, and in spite of two GPS systems, we've gotten lost. "I'm not so good with directions," Martorano apologizes. He wheels the Escalade through a U-turn.
We've taken the wrong exit, and it's partly my fault. I've asked Martorano why he glorifies the memory of his Mafia uncle. His uncle is dead, I point out, and Martorano is alive, a successful restaurateur, a millionaire. Why would he want to be like his Uncle Ray?
The question has lit him up. Martorano's voice has gone from placid and measured sentences to a full-out bellow, filling the SUV. "My uncle always said people mistake kindness for weakness," Martorano shouts. "My uncle was very strong; he never trusted anybody. But nobody ever retired on that hill. Here's the difference." He pounds the steering wheel with a balled fist. "I've trusted people too much, and they take advantage. If you hurt me, there's a part of me you never want to see."
Martorano's uncle, Ray "Long John" Martorano, was a close associate of Mafia don Angelo Bruno. (Ray and Bruno owned a vending business that employed Steve's father for most of his life.) In the early '80s, Ray was closely connected to the bloodiest and most vicious organized-crime turf war in Philadelphia history. After Bruno was assassinated, Ray and two others were convicted of the murder of a union boss, but the conviction was later overturned.
In Martorano's early memories, food and violence are intertwined. He was buying a cheese steak at a Philadelphia takeout in 1981 when somebody ran in and yelled news about the new don: "They just blew up Phil Testa!" Afterward, Martorano brought his sandwich to Testa's bombed-out house. He ate it on the curb outside as cops, ambulances, and reporters rolled in.
One of the great tragedies of Martorano's life was his uncle's murder just a year after his release from prison. "He was one of two people who always believed in me — Uncle Ray and my mother," Martorano says. "Anybody else wanted to see me fail. He used to call me from the joint: 'I want two sandwiches, peppers and eggs, and a hoagie,' and I'd bring them stuffed inside my socks or down my pants. I waited my whole life for my uncle to get out of jail, and then they shot and killed him in the street.
"There's a side of me that always believes in people," he notes, his voice growing pained. "A man like my uncle could never have that. He could not afford to worry about anybody. At his own mother's funeral, Uncle Ray ordered that nobody could cry. Sometimes I wish I had those traits," he adds wistfully. "The only way to be strong is to be cold."
We pull into the parking lot at Prime Line. "There's still so much I want to accomplish before I go," he says quietly. "And after, who the fuck knows? God doesn't want me, and the devil's afraid of me."
Martorano introduces me to Dennis Landi, vice president of Prime Line. Landi's father, Gianni, founded Prime Line in 1981; the company sells top-quality imported European foods. Landi and account executive Ugo Trivelli have set up a spread on the counter in the clean, bright showroom: dry sausages, a new pecorino cheese, La Valle broad beans, Columbus salami, jars of jelly made with Marsala wine, and thin slices of lardo — cured, salted, subcutaneous pig fat.
Martorano pops a slice of lardo in his mouth. "Maybe I'd use this in a cream sauce," he says. He cuts a slice of soft stracciatella cheese. "This, I could bread and fry. Fried cheese is the big thing now.
"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.' "
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.
"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.
"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."
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."
Martorano loves to shop, for jewelry, cars, and clothes, and the C1 is part of the collection of luxury watches he has bought from Levinson Jewelers over the years. Levinson custom-made diamond necklaces with Martorano's trademark M for the whole family and the cross he wears on its long diamond chain. This cross is his second — he left the first necklace, worth more than $100,000, in a tanning booth. "I had it insured, but guess what? Insurance doesn't pay for something if you lose it."
We're on our way to Whole Foods. Martorano wants to buy ingredients for the night's small plates, dishes he sends out free to customers waiting at the bar or in line for hours outside on busy weekends. "I got an idea for fried rice," he says. "Italians love Chinese food. You come to Martorano's — it's like eating in my home. I serve what I like, and I'm a Chinese guy all the way."
He explains that there are no recipes at his restaurant. "I stand there and show my line cooks what we do. I let them taste to memorize the flavor. Cooking Italian food is all about flavor. It's not about technique."
In the produce aisle at Whole Foods, he bites off the end of an Anaheim pepper, remarking to himself, "So much water in that." He buys three pounds of pink Key West shrimp at $13 a pound for a risotto he'll give away that night to waiting customers. Gesturing at the seafood display: "You know what you do to make octopus tender? You boil it with wine corks." He buys center-cut loin pork chops and stops in an aisle of jarred sauces. Taking a bottle of Euca Van's Pomodoro from the shelf, he studies the label. "Look at this. Here's how you know whether it'll taste any good. They're not using San Marzano tomatoes."
A couple of nights later, I show up at the restaurant and sample that fried rice while I'm waiting at the bar for a table. It's an almost-perfect fusion of Chinese and Italian — a creamy risotto-like texture in the jasmine rice, fragrant with celery, carrots, bean sprouts, olive oil, garlic, Italian peppers, touches of oyster sauce, and a spicy red chili oil, made in house, drizzled on top. I can't get enough of it. Or enough of another free tasting plate: cheese ravioli from Mimi's Ravioli in Hollywood. They're cooked with such finesse that they're like a how-it's-done demo: al dente pasta zipped around hot, smooth creamy ricotta and ladled with marinara sauce. A friend visiting from Manhattan is so hooked at this point, before we've even sat down, that he's already planning to come back; four nights later, he makes the 50-minute drive for a second meal at Martorano's, alone and in the rain.
"I've seen people drive all the way up from Miami to eat at Martorano's," Tom Angelo says. "Miami, where there are thousands of restaurants. Think about it: Fort Lauderdale is not a movie-star mecca, but Ludacris drives up, the basketball players. Peyton Manning, last time he was here, he drove up from Miami twice."
Martorano bench-presses three sets of 300 pounds and is barely breathing hard.
"Growing up in South Philadelphia, there was jealousy everywhere," he says. "People were like, 'You got. He got. Why I don't got?' When I opened Martorano's, everybody said, 'You can't do this. It won't work. It's too expensive. You won't last six months.' "
"Your muscles are gonna get cold," Angel says gently.
"Hey, Angel, who's singing right now?"
We all pause to listen to the sound system. Angel has no idea.
"That's B.J. Thomas," Martorano says. "From what movie?"
Angel has no idea.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Martorano moves to another bench while Angel sets up his weights. "My Uncle Ray had a story, about the scorpion and the — what was it? — the turtle."
"No, it was a frog," Angel says.
"Frog, turtle, whatever. They need to cross the river, and the scorpion says, hey, will you take me over on your back? The turtle or the frog says, 'No, man; you'll sting me.' 'No, I won't sting you,' says the scorpion. 'I won't because if I sting you, we'll both drown.' 'Yeah, I guess you're right,' says the frog. So the scorpion hops on his back, and they're halfway across, and the scorpion stings the frog. 'Hey! I thought you said you wouldn't do that,' the frog says, and he's drowning. 'I'm a scorpion,' the scorpion says. 'What the fuck did you think was gonna happen?'
"You are who you are. You can't ever escape that, no matter what you do." Martorano takes a deep breath and pushes up the bar.