By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
So why the fuss about this particular Italian restaurant, which is as subtle as a mob hit man?
Probably because Martorano has succeeded in creating something that few restaurateurs have done: mystique, pure and simple. The six? seven? eight? year-old Café Martorano is Tantra without the incense, Joe's minus the Manhattanites. Not only is Martorano notorious for not answering questions, he doesn't publish a menu and refuses to allow patrons to commit atrocities such as grating cheese on a seafood dish.
Martorano, it's fair to say, is an arrogant chef (the likes of which I haven't come across since the Raleigh Hotel's Kerry Simon -- and he only really cared about his hair). You consume what he sends out, you eat it how he wants it to be eaten, and you pay what he wants to charge you. If you're lucky the dishes on the table will include a truffle-scented fettuccine Alfredo or his fist-size meatballs -- fists modeled after Sylvester Stallone's, it should be pointed out, one of the Italian-American icons whose black-and-white movie stills decorate the walls. If you're not lucky, you'll still be delighted to scarf down his platter-size portion of veal Parmesan or "veal downtown," a savory concoction that combines scaloppine with a layer of ham, onions, peppers, marinara, and mozzarella cheese.
If you're thinking that this ultramoderne trattoria could be a set for The Sopranos, you're not only getting the right idea, you're making Martorano a happy man (and in the process, making yourself just a little bit paranoid to sit with your back to the door). The Sopranos, the Godfather trilogy, even The Freshman -- that's what Martorano wants you to think when you come through the door. If you can get through the door, that is. He's got dozens of television screens of every size posted in any available spot, and he incessantly plays certain films that glamorize the Italian Mafia, the way Tantra promotes the more enticing sexual positions by constantly screening the Kama Sutra. When a particularly juicy part comes on, be it a cursing out or a beating down, Martorano turns down the Seventies disco and turns up the volume of the TVs from the control panel posted right above the stovetop where he's holding forth in the open kitchen. He also flashes strobes and a variety of neon-hued lights at his whim, and I suspect he even has the thermostat for the restaurant's air-conditioning at his right hand as well. The noise level is at Homestead tractor-pull decibels and the constant shift in atmospheric conditions could cause even a cat to temporarily lose perspective.
All in all, Steve Martorano, it's fair to say, is a control freak. And his customers love him for it, posting testimonials on Websites that read rather accurately: "I felt like I was in a Hollywood film production, as the patrons gave the place most of its character. I'll go back once I save up the money to return!" And, "This is the only restaurant I have ever been to where the owner tries to accommodate those who have been patiently waiting for a table." And then there's "Steve gives my mom a run for her money in the kitchen." (Sorry, whoever's mom.)
And even those who don't quite get it -- like the critics, Martorano might sneer -- come close. "I have never been there when I didn't wait at least two hours for a table. The food is excellent and comes in huge portions, but is highly overpriced. The music is very loud, so there won't be much conversation with your company. If you don't like your date, and you don't mind eating at 12:30 at night, and $500 is nothing for you to spend, then this is the place for you," notes one diner. With the exception of the "huge portions" nod, that's practically the quintessential definition of a South Beach experience. Add that the Italian fare is as authentic and convincing as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, or -- why not -- Marlon Brando, and in the end, it's no wonder such a jaded crowd is attracted.