Its' All in the Sauce
Steve Martorano isn’t your average chef, nor does he want to be.
By Jan Norris
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
Steve Martorano is a walking paradox. His big, tough-guy image melts as he tears up remembering his recently deceased mother. He lacks professional culinary training, yet his street smarts and business acumen have landed him at the helm of four successful restaurants. And though he’s “pushing 59,” he’s still cooking and spinning as a DJ seven days a week at one of his namesake establishments.
“I gotta protect my brand,” Martorano says. “I work every day. It’s why I’m still around.” It’s who he is—and just in case you forget, his name is on display everywhere at his restaurants.
We’re sitting at the bar of his 23-year-old flagship location, Cafe Martorano on East Oakland Park Boulevard, where the counter shines with purple uplights. Martorano comes from prepping behind the stoves to sit before the early-dinner rush. “We were slammed last night!” he says. “They were at the door at 6 o’clock, lined up to get in.”
Martorano looks the part of a culinary version of Mr. Clean: head shaved to a short mohawk, twin diamond stud earrings, a gray T-shirt swallowing a neck as thick as his thighs and stretching to near tearing point around his biceps. His 6-foot-1 frame carries 250 pounds of taut muscle, much of that covered by his 12 tattoos. He’s in the gym six days a week, minimum.
He’s dressed in frayed putty cutoffs punctuated by red Nike lace-ups. “I’m a Nike freak,” he explains, waving a foot. “But I’m going to have my own line of sneakers soon.”
Sneakers? “I got all kinds of things going,” he says, laughing. “I never stop.”
The shoes will join Martorano’s line of apparel, jewelry, pasta sauces, books and videos, a cologne called M that he’s developing, and house-label wines. A pizzeria chain is also in the near future.
“I’ve just finished a movie script,” he adds. “Two production companies are already interested in it, and we haven’t even shopped it yet. It’s my life story: growing up in Philly and taking my food business from a basement to Vegas.”
And who will play him? “I want Vin Diesel,” he says. Don’t laugh. With all his celebrity contacts, it could happen.
Behind all of the goods, the restaurants and the brash persona is the tough neighborhood of South Philadelphia—and his mom’s meatballs. He insists they were perfect.
“My mom would fry the meatballs before she put them in the gravy,” Martorano says. “I’d eat one for breakfast, then put some on bread, with Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and eat it for lunch. Then we’d have them again with the gravy for dinner.” Note well: You don’t call it pasta sauce here. “In South Philly, it’s gravy, cuz.”
There’s that word: cuz. “Yo Cuz!” is emblazoned on Martorano’s jewelry, book covers and signs around his restaurants; it’s even spelled out in crystal beads across the bartender’s tight tank top.
It’s the South Philly code of the rough and loyal neighborhood of Sicilians who molded him. This is where, as an only child, Martorano learned to cook the old-world dishes handed down from his grandmother, mother and other women in the neighborhood. He’s humble and straightforward about his youth. “You never forget where you come from,” he says, taking on his most serious posture. “No matter what. It’s who you are—it’s what makes you.”
Today, only the best tomatoes from Italy and the best-quality pastas go into his dishes. And it’s all cooked to order, so at Martorano’s, you dine; you don’t just eat. It’s how it was on Sundays in Philly, where meals were feasts and family time, where the news of the cousins, as well as the more famous “family” was delivered.
Martorano makes no secret of growing up around the mob, and the roles his relatives played in it. “I was never ashamed of my name,” he says. “But I went the other way. I didn’t want to go down that road.”
With no real plans to make a career in the food business, Martorano started making sandwiches and selling them out of his mom’s basement as Steve’s Italian Hoagies, while DJing for area clubs at night.
“The people would knock on the [street-level] window, call out their orders, and I’d write them down,” he recalls. Later, his mom would take the orders. He made the $7.90 sandwiches fresh, right before lunchtime, then delivered them and collected the money. Business grew to a takeout shop around the corner, where he expanded the menu to cheesesteaks, pizza, a few pastas and homemade water ice. Soon, he had a stand-alone venture.
Unfortunately, the area’s economy went bust, and Martorano ended up selling at a loss. He came to South Florida in the early ’90s at a friend’s suggestion, “with $40 in my pocket and a house with no furniture. I was sleeping in a beach chair.”
He eventually opened Cafe Martorano in the strip mall on Oakland Park Boulevard, struggling at first, but eventually gaining momentum. Visits from celebrities Tony Bennett, Dan Marino and a host of other athletes and musicians, fueled his reputation. “All I did was cook the way I knew how,” Martorano says.
Five years after opening, he expanded the space to another bay. His meatballs and fresh pastas in a club setting after hours were the talk of South Florida, and reservations at Cafe Martorano became the hottest ticket around. Las Vegas called soon after, and Martorano wound up in the Rio hotel and casino with his second location. Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino eventually won him over, followed by Harrah’s in Atlantic City.
Now, Martorano rocks and rolls with other star chefs, especially in Vegas (he’s now at the Paris hotel and casino), and is included in the many charity events where, “Boyood [sic], Gordon Ramsay and all those big guys show up. And here’s me,” he says, mangling a few names, including Daniel Boulud.
Robin Leach, noted TV host and food columnist in Las Vegas, is a big fan. “In the cut-throat world of Vegas cooking with star restaurants and celebrity chefs, he stands tall,” Leach says. “Who other than Steve, an Italian, could conquer a French hideout?”
Martorano has legions of celebrity friends and athletes, pictures of whom are peppered on his website—Ludacris, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Phelps and the cast of “The Sopranos.” He is also buddies with Jimmy Kimmel and will return to the late-night host’s show this July for the fifth time to cook onstage.
Kimmel explains the appeal by tweeting: “If Steve and I lived in the same town, I’d weigh 400 pounds. Everything he makes is delicious. I’d have to check the dates, but there is a possibility that Steve is my Italian grandmother reincarnated.”
It’s no surprise that family remains at the heart of everything Martorano does. If he could cook for anyone, who would it be? Martorano is quick to answer: “It would be my mom. I miss her so much. She taught me everything.”