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 The plan includes a national brand of products and an as-yet-unpublished autobiographical cookbook tentatively titled What's Up, Cuz?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.