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."