We had just been seated at a small, white-clothed table at Martorano's Italian-American Kitchen. The four of us — starving thanks to our late-night reservation and screaming over the blasting sound system — couldn't help but laugh at the title of owner Steve Martorano's new book, which was proudly being hawked via a laminated card set on every table alongside the silverware. The biography, Yo Cuz — It Ain't Sauce, It's Gravy: The Steve Martorano Story, features an image of the tattooed chef wearing a neckful of bling and looking every bit like Mickey Rourke, South Philly version. The book, due this fall, covers Martorano's rags-to-riches story, explains why you better not dare call his sumptuous tomato gravy mere "marinara sauce," and features some of the famous recipes he inherited from his mama. The advertisement for it recalled the equally amusing 15-foot-tall image of Martorano looking down across Hard Rock Seminole Paradise from the side of his palatial new restaurant. The level of ego and over-the-top Italian pride was just too ridiculous not to crack wise at.
"He looks like the white Mr. T," my friend Fenton mused. "Only, instead of asking kids to drink milk, it's gravy."
Of course, we laughed only about as long as it took to get the food at Martorano's. Because once it arrived, our mouths were too full of house-made mozzarella, tender meatballs, and some of the best pasta in South Florida to even think about making fun. And when we weren't praising the pasta, we were equally busy obsessing over the real-life celebrity the place attracts — on that night, Washington Redskins players Clinton Portis and DeAngelo Hall. We had walked in with some pretty hefty preconceived notions, but by the end of our meal, we were drinking Steve Martorano's gravy-flavored Kool-Aid.
For Martorano, that's nothing new. For 17 years, the pumped-up bad boy has performed that same magic trick at his Fort Lauderdale restaurant, Café Martorano, a place so regularly studded with celebrities that it's like an Oscar wrap party transported to Philly's south side. Martorano himself is there nightly, cooking pasta and spinning records from his custom-made, kitchen-side DJ booth. His food is regularly touted as some of the best around — the best in the world, for that matter, as Gourmet magazine once famously described his meatballs. Yet for a guy who regularly cavorts with Shaquille O'Neal, Jamie Foxx, and practically every Italian-American actor to walk the planet, he's disarmingly gracious. "I've never called myself a chef," he tells me over the phone. "I'm just a cook and a neighborhood guy who's gotten lucky."
Luck has little to do with the opening of this, Martorano's third restaurant. Unless, of course, you count the fact that the palatial digs are set in South Florida's busiest hotel and casino. Martorano had already turned himself into a brand with the opening of his Las Vegas restaurant in the Rio Hotel in 2007. With that spot and with the Hard Rock location, Martorano is turning his vision into reality. He partnered with Buddy Morton, owner of Passion Nightclub, and set out to make the place as clubby and fun as possible. On the whole, it works: The place is so full of energy and glitz that it practically sparkles. It's as if every flat surface is covered in sequins and flashbulbs. A massive white marble bar sits just inside the front door and glows with blue backlighting. Not far down the black-tiled room sits a raised DJ booth, and from that vantage point, club music is pumped constantly across some 7,400 square feet of space. Furthering the clubby illusion are partiers nestled into corners enjoying VIP bottle service, a bathroom attendant dishing out towels in the men's room, and the booming voice of the DJ reminding everyone to "please tip your waiters and bartenders." It's so much like a strip club, it's surreal.
It's easy to be taken aback at first by the impressive size and volume of the place. But make no mistake; that impression is deliberate. Martorano says he wasn't sold on the idea of opening a restaurant at the Hard Rock — until blackjack arrived. Once it did, he wanted to build something fine-tuned for the hopped-up gambling crowd. He designed the place in the image of his original restaurant but made some key changes in the kitchen. Namely, his 48-burner stove manned by a trio of chefs, whom he refers to as "Chef Walter, Chef David, and Chef Fernando." They turn out a menu that's smaller than the one you'll find just 20 minutes down the road. The reasoning, he says, has to do with pulling in three times the covers per night while still cooking to order. "It's not easy to maintain that quality," he says. "But I'm there every day making sure I do."
For me, the downsizing works. The menu here is just as focused as at his flagship restaurant and every bit as enticing. Back are Cafe Martorano mainstays like fried galamod (that's calamari) served two ways and pig's feet braised in thick, red gravy. Then there's a home-style cheese steak made with caramelized onions and truffle fries (try getting that at Geno's or Pat's) and shrimp scampi served over Italian bread with peas and bread crumbs. The mozzarella, made to order in-house, runs $16 to $18 and comes as a fresh ball topped with olive oil or prosciutto San Danielle cut from an antique $10,000 machine. Or it's coated in bread crumbs and fried, then napped with spicy-tart tomato sauce or a sauté of anchovies and capers. As good as that fresh mozz is, a few dabs of the same milky cheese atop a classic margherita pizza ($16) is even better. The Parmigiano and slightly sweet sauce practically melted into one concise layer. The only complaint we could muster was against the thin crust: We found it slightly too dense, as if overworked.
Martorano's famous meatballs are served here too — with a whorl of fantastically light ricotta cheese ($14) or with a "South Philly salad" for an extra $6. I won't even begin to parse whether these meatballs are the best ever; that's too subjective an argument. I can say they're fine examples of the form, moist and dense with the kind of meaty gravy that sends the otherwise-boring salad of romaine hearts to greater heights. You almost forget that you're paying $20 for a meatball and a bit of greens.
From the looks of things, the food satisfied even Clinton Portis' bodyguard, a hulking man sitting at a table all his own. Every so often, we'd sneak a glance in the celebrity athlete's direction, and each time, we caught the dude with his head sunk deeply into a bowl of bucatini with meatballs. "That guy is literally chowing down," said Tara. "I don't think he's looked up all night."
He didn't need to. All the other diners were too enraptured in their own plates to even think about bugging the star athlete. Most of Martorano's family-style dishes are expensive, but the portions are so big that they could account for at least a few hefty meals (unless you're a celebrity bodyguard). Martorano uses only imported dry pasta cooked to order, a practice that imparts amazing texture into his dishes. A bowl of fusili pollo ($34) sees spicy marinara and long, curly pasta fused into one deep element. Accented by thick slices of breaded chicken cutlets and intensely rendered peppers, the pasta is like a well-executed refrain. Spaghetti carbonara ($25) comes crowned with a single egg yolk set inside its halved shell. Mixed into the thick macaroni full of thick lardons of pancetta, the creamy/salty mixture practically jumps off the plate.
If anything is the star at Martorano's, though, it's the gravy. A boatload of rigatoni ($34) splashed around a pool of the stuff so intensely porky, I wanted to name it and show it off at the state fair. Mike, our resident gravy aficionado, practically fell over himself with one taste of the stuff. Since that night, he has text-messaged me constantly to extoll the intensely tender pork, the sunny sauce, and smooth dab of ricotta cheese floating atop it all like an island. He went on so long, I thought he was going to write a book about it.
Martorano already has. His mug, plastered over just about every free inch of space in the restaurant, is pretty darned pervasive. But this is one instance in which the bravado and glittery ambiance actually fits. There's no denying his food is wondrous, even if you do have to keep your tongue firmly planted in your cheek while chewing the pasta. In the end, Martorano made me a believer. It's a good thing that face is looking down over the Hard Rock after all.