Big Cheese | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Restaurant Reviews

Big Cheese

You either love a guy like Steve Martorano or you don't.

But you've got to make up your mind, because Martorano is everywhere. There's no escaping his pug-faced mug. It's plastered on the jars of his signature spaghetti sauce. He's all over YouTube, including a rap video extolling his eggplant stack and his friendship with Shaq. You'll find it in a hundred celeb photos: Martorano posed with Natalie Cole, Tom Jones, Dan Marino, Matt Damon, Babyface, Dwyane Wade, Vincent Pastore, Ludacris, Tom Cruise. Here he is on TV, teaching Jimmy Kimmel how to cook "the best meatballs in the world." And now he's got himself an agent and a Las Vegas restaurant that opened last year and maybe a cookbook and an MTV food show in the works. You can bet we're going to see a lot more of him.

Martorano is the oversized, tribal-tattooed, biceps-flexing, bling-wearing proprietor of the 15-year-old Café Martorano in Fort Lauderdale. He opened with just 800 square feet and 40 bucks in his pocket. With the restaurant grossing $6 million a year and stretched to 3,000 square feet, he likely carries considerably more these days.

I know this guy in my bones: I grew up with boys like Martorano in South Philly — dated them, the Ciccones, the Silvestras, and the Pomilios. I lusted after their cuter older brothers, ate their grandmother's meatballs and ricotta cake, watched endless Flyers games on their plastic-encased living room couches. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I ran into Martorano back when he was selling hoagies out of his mother's basement.

His uncle, Ray "Long John" Martorano, owned a restaurant on 11th Street called Cous' Little Italy. Ray Martorano, who had Mob connections, was assassinated in 2002, and his Mob boss, Angelo Bruno, ate his last meal at Cous' — chicken Sicilian and rigatoni marinara, goes the legend. Cous' recipes are on Martorano's menu to this day. The spaghetti with pancetta and clams is listed as "Angelo Bruno's fav," and Martorano's notorious cousin Georgie, a drug runner turned novelist, evidently loves the bucatini with imported tuna and capers.

So put me at the top of the pile of people who love a guy like Martorano. You couldn't invent a better pedigree for purveying pasta. He's got the look, the personality, the genetics, and the cooking chops — he still works the line (and the DJ booth) in the kitchen; he's a showman with an appealing vein of modesty running through the bluster. "I'm a cook, not a chef," he said on Kimmel's show. "Anybody could do this. Everybody's mother makes meatballs. It's so simple." The guy grills octopus in his undershirt, with one hand on the turntable, and those octopi taste fabulous.

With its glittery M on the door, the DJ booth at the entrance, the polished sheen of silver and white marble, and the walls of flat screens pulsing like blue strobes visible even if you're whizzing by on Oakland Park Boulevard, Café Martorano looks as much strip club as supper club. Lines, as you will have heard, snake out the doors on weekends, and the wait for a table can be up to three hours. Fort Lauderdale has always been impressed by the half-deafening club thump and the celebrity sightings of the likes of Lorraine Bracco, who was supposedly there on the night I dined. That's because Martorano is a gigantic, 320-pound fish in our little pond. His restaurant is a microcosm of our boobtastic, Lauderdalian, all-night party. Martorano's has always been Vegas for dummies, the place you go for that third, make-it-or-break-it date, because, with your mouth full of Cliquot and buttered pastina, your head pounding with funk-it-up, you can't say anything stupid. Or if you do, she won't hear it.

Italian-American is the go-to food for the majority, doubly so if we happen to be Italian-American. My Sicilian spouselet, for example, totally gets why Martorano serves his baseball-sized meatball ($18) with a side of green salad: "Because salad always tastes better with a little gravy." Exactly. You get a forkful of über-soft meatball (made with pork, veal, beef, day-old Italian bread, and garlic salt) and scoop it into your mouth along with some of those vinaigrette-laden greens and whatever tomato gravy happens to be around. It's even better with a smear of the slightly sweet, delicately foamy ricotta that Martorano dollops on the plate. The red gravy is full of the taste of pork (something has been long-cooked in there — ribs, pigs' feet, whatever). The combination is just delicious.

Grilled octopus ($18, "Joe Gannascoli's fav") comes sizzling to the table with a perfect char, a little tender and a little chewy, doused with the floral juice of Meyer lemon, bathed in an olive-oil-saturated sauce that's ideal for mopping up with Italian bread or the warm pretzels served in a cone (you also get mustard, sweet whipped butter, and chili pepper oil to dip your bread into). Also on the new printed menu: a thin-crust pizza (Kimmel loves this one); Sicilian rice balls; lightly breaded fresh mozzarella; spicy wings with upscale macaroni and cheese; clams stuffed with shrimp, crab, and béchamel; and a Philly cheese steak made with rib eye and caramelized onions.

Orecchiette with white and red beans, escarole, and sweet and hot sausage ($28) tastes creamy and rich. The beans sort of melt into a lovely, starchy sauce, the escarole wilts into that, the little balls of sausage pop with flavor, and you end up with a dish that's as textured as a relief map of the Italian alps. Because you'll never finish a second course after the huge appetizers, you'll find it reheats excellently the next day. So does a fat, meaty shank of osso buco ($44), at 18 ounces, something like four full servings of protein and a couple of veg, what with the fresh peas, sliced carrots, and onions in its superreduced bath of red gravy. There's lobster Française, veal chops, 12 ounces of Kobe beef cooked either with hot fried peppers or Sinatra-style with Marsala, chicken parmigiana, and pork chops with cherry peppers. And though Martorano has repeatedly promised, "You won't see salmon on my menu. Everything I like is what I do" — there it is, at $38, looking like Queen Sonja wrapped in a kimono and parachuted into the middle of a big fat Italian wedding. The description promises: "Norwegian salmon with shiitake mushroom reduction." Say, whaaaa?

The desserts, like those cannolis ($12), taste like they came from the corner deli, but who has room for dessert anyway? At Martorano's, you can't get hard liquor, although an Italy-focused wine list offers affordable Gavis and Chiantis all the way up to a magnum of Opus One. You can't get a glass of tap water to save your life (H20, at seven bucks a bottle, pairs much better with spaghetti, the waiter explains). There's no regular coffee. The place is noisy. Don't even bother to ask for substitutions. They do not take reservations. In short, Martorano's is a total pain in the ass.

Don't bust balls, his menu screams. You don't like it, go someplace else — you'll only make the wait in line that much shorter when the rest of us show up in haute party mode, with our baubles and minidresses, screaming with laughter and jonesing for a plate of carbonara, ready to dance all night with Babyface, Luda­cris, and the entire cast of The Sopranos.

You don't love Steve Martorano? There's plenty who do. And those who do are a hell of a lot more fun anyway.

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