On the Steaks of South Philly

Steve Martorano, it's fair to say, is not a patient man. If you call him during the day, the chef-owner of Café Martorano in Fort Lauderdale won't even answer the phone, since he doesn't take reservations. If by some miracle he does pick up, he'll probably be curt, limiting your conversation to a "tell me what you want and be done with it" exchange. As one of the most popular proprietors in South Florida, he's no doubt correct that unless you're one of his purveyors, he's got no time for you. And like many known Mafia mavens who share his last name, he's not shy about expressing himself.

Indeed I know several critics who've been so put off by his laissez-faire attitude (not to mention his language, which tends toward frequent f-bomb explosions) that Martorano's official newspaper ratings have gone down because of it, from four stars to three-and-a-half. If you search the Websites of South Florida papers, it's impossible to locate any of the writeups without really great Internet skills, though I know for a fact that Lyn Farmer of the Sun-Sentinel critiqued the place rather recently. The only review I could find, by C.B. Marino of the Miami Herald Broward edition, sums up the restaurant perfectly: "In the eloquent vernacular of Sopranos star Steven Van Zant (Silvio Dante), Café Martorano isn't only a restaurant, it's a bleep-worthy event."

Steve Martorano, it's fair to say, is not a chef who caters to the typical restaurant reviewer. I'm told by an acquaintance that his straight-from-South-Philly philosophy is quotable: "Fuck the critics. You guys [the diners] are my critics."

Damn, but I like this guy. He may not be a pal to my ilk, but he's a downright teddy bear to his customers. And by that I don't mean that he comes around glad-handing and kissing babies. Simply, he runs the most egalitarian hip restaurant in the tri-county area. Everyone -- be you critic, celebrity, or regular -- waits, as long as it takes, for one of the ten or so tables (with the exception of Dan Marino, who's been known to wait in his car for take-out). During which you'll watch the off-duty cop who's been hired as a security guard outside scarf down a plate of pasta and, if you've hit the joint at the right moment, you'll witness South Florida's more charming asses -- some of whom you might have seen at Pearl or Rumi the night before -- doing a slow jiggle on the bar top. It's a show that has so much potential fun that Miamians have been making Martorano runs when they could be going to South Beach instead -- a cross-the-county-line nightly migration not seen since Fort Lauderdale Strip days. And I do mean, ahem, strip.

Don't believe that no one gets special treatment? I give you myself as an example. I tread a line as thin as angel hair pasta with my pair of New Times columns. In Miami I'm critic-at-large, visible as far as my height allows, frequenter of openings and media dinners and wine lunches and charity functions and just about any other event that allows me a closeup of the restaurant industry. But in Broward and Palm Beach counties, I review restaurants anonymously, make reservations under false names, pay with cash, act invisibly. Only once in a very great while do I encounter a conflict -- for instance when a Miami chef who is known to me opens a place in Palm Beach, the way former Astor Place chef Johnny Vinczencz is doing in Delray Beach at the newly revamped Sundy House.

Or when I head to a place like Café Martorano to celebrate a pair of birthdays, take a stretch limo to the restaurant to mark the occasion, and join the beverage account manager from Southern Wine & Spirits who supplies the restaurant with wine, the Southern district manager of South Beach, a well-known South Beach chef who has been quoted in print that Café Martorano is his favorite restaurant, and a few other industry insiders. One of them asked my permission to tell Martorano that I was a member of the party. "If he finds out afterwards," he told me, "he'll be mad."

Frankly I don't care if Martorano gets as pissed as a puppy tied to a fire hydrant. But in the end I agreed to be identified, not because Martorano despises critics but because he stands by his dislike. In other words, he's not just paying lip service like some chefs I know who hate me and my kind but then give us the best tables in the house and try to seduce us with off-the-menu food and drink. I knew Martorano wouldn't kiss my ass with the same mouth that curses it.

And he didn't. I wasn't introduced to him. He didn't acknowledge me. He didn't come over to greet the others at my table -- they went to him. And that's after we waited so long for a table I stopped checking my watch and just got flat-out pissed myself -- as in drunk. In fact the only perks we got were what the regulars often receive: South Philly cheese steaks, cut into hunks and passed around the bar area to keep us from eating our own limbs.

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.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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