He's got balls: Steve Martorano's food goes right back to the sauce

JOSH RITCHIE / FOR THE DAILY NEWS Despite his success, you can find Martorano working in the kitchen.
JOSH RITCHIE / FOR THE DAILY NEWS Despite his success, you can find Martorano working in the kitchen.
Posted: March 06, 2013

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. - The late South Philly mob figure Salvatore Testa probably isn't remembered by most people as the purveyor of inspirational words. But Steve Martorano can argue that Testa not only motivated him to change his life for the better, but he actually may have saved it.

"I remember Salvie Testa tellin' me, 'Stevie, I'm gonna live hard and fast. I know I'm not gonna be around long, so I'm gonna live that way,' " recalled Martorano during a recent chat at the flagship store of his three-outlet Café Martorano restaurant chain. "I wanted somethin' better, so I came down here to Florida and looked around."

Martorano, 55, headed south in the early 1990s, away from the family business run by his uncle, Raymond "Long John" Martorano, a notorious local organized-crime big shot whose February 2002 murder remains unsolved.

Steve Martorano's cousin George Martorano is still in jail after pleading guilty in 1984 to conspiracy to distribute narcotics and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. Another cousin, Raymond (namesake grandson of "Long John"), was busted in a major pot case in the '90s but was ultimately cleared of the charges when a judge ruled that prosecutors had not proved conclusively that he knew he was helping to ship containers of marijuana.

Today, however, the only mobs that concern Steve Martorano are the ones that jam his eateries in Lauderdale and Hollywood, Fla. (at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino), and Las Vegas (Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino).

Not that the mob life was such a bad thing for the young Martorano, growing up in King of Peace Parish, near 26th and Wharton. He admits that, as a youngster, "I was a street guy. That's what my family was. That's what I wanted to be. I wanted to follow in my uncle's footsteps and I wanted to follow in my father's [loan-sharking] footsteps."

The now-bald and heavily tatted Martorano recalled skating through high school at what used to be Bishop Neumann thanks to the favors he did for various teachers via his underworld connections (including getting them black-market vouchers during the gasoline shortage of the early 1970s). And when he was older and decided that he wanted to be a nightclub DJ, he found steady work at several discos, including Valentino's, in Cherry Hill, which was run by members of New York's Gambino family.

But, by the time he reached his mid-30s, Martorano, who had run sandwich shops in South Philly and the Northeast, had had enough, financially and culture-wise. "It was when [former Philly mob boss Nicky] Scarfo was down' his thing and people were gettin' killed left and right," he recalled. "I wanted a new life."

He reached out to a friend from South Philly, Ray Abruzzese, who died in 2011. Abruzzese, who lived in Fort Lauderdale, had played football with Joe Namath at the University of Alabama and was Namath's partner in the turn-of-the-'70s New York nightclub Bachelors III.

"I said to him, 'I gotta do something,' and he said, 'Why don't you come to Florida?' "

Why not, indeed, Martorano thought. "I like the weather. I figured, if I don't make no f----n' money, at least the weather is good all year 'round."

Someone - he can't recall who - suggested that he check out Coral Springs, a sleepy burg between Fort Lauderdale and the Everglades. He looked around and couldn't find even one reason to stay there. "Everybody was in bed by 9 o'clock," he said, failing to disguise the contempt in his voice (and in an accent that remains pure South Philly).

He called Abruzzese to say goodbye, but his friend wasn't having it. "He said, 'Stop bein' a [jerk]. Get that South Philly mentality out of your mind. Come and look at this place across the street from me [in Fort Lauderdale] before you get on the plane."

Martorano did, and the rest is history. "If I didn't stop to say goodbye to Ray and look at this place," he said, "my life would have been completely different."

Just pasta and gravy

That life-changing store, in a strip mall a few yards west of ocean-hugging Florida Route A1A, encompassed just 800 square feet. (It now covers 3,000.) He opened the original Café Martorano with a sparse crew consisting of himself, a busboy and a waiter. The modest menu featured the kind of pasta-and-red-gravy fare he'd grown up on. His ambitions were equally humble.

"All I wanted to do was pay bills," he said. "I had no dream. There was no vision. What happened was, celebrities started to come in."

The first bold-face name to avail himself of Café Martorano's bounty was Tony Bennett. "He came in and had dinner," said Martorano. "Before you know it, [NFL legends] Dan Marino [and] Joe Montana, the cast of 'The Sopranos,' they all started coming in."

That he has become meatballer-to-the-stars is documented in his 2011 autobiography-cum-cookbook, Yo Cuz! My Life My Food My Way (North Star Books). ("Yo, Cuz!" is Martorano's signature line. He uses it constantly, not only in conversation but also as an icon of his business.)

The book's foreword includes two pages of testimonials from such A-listers as Tom Cruise ("The best Bucatini Carbonara I've ever had"), Jamie Foxx, rapper Ludacris, Jimmy Kimmel, quarterback Peyton Manning and singer Tom Jones.

His Vegas location is a favorite of actor Chazz Palminteri, who, one evening, brought along a pal, entertainer Joe Piscopo.

"It was after his performance of [Palminteri's] 'A Bronx Tale' stage show," remembered Piscopo. "It was late, and I was impressed with the food and the fact that Steve was still there working the kitchen. That's Italian work ethic, baby!"

It would be easy to assume that Martorano's family connections helped his restaurant success, but he denied that that was the case. "It's not true," he said. "It had nothin' to do with my family. They are two separate things. Besides, my name wasn't even known in South Florida."

Floridians know his name now. Word spread about the no-nonsense guy with the South Philly 'tude and meatballs the likes of which that region had never seen.

"As far as I'm concerned, I put the meatball on the map," he bragged. "Gourmet magazine in 2007 [wrote] they 'might be the best meatball in the world.' "

Growing up, he noted, "We would have the meatballs and the salad at the end of the meal. I thought, let's put 'em together as the appetizer. That's what really got me started. People started comin' in for the meatballs."

'I'm not a chef'

Although Café Martorano's price points are more in line with upscale gourmet rooms, the approach is decidedly no-frills.

"This whole menu is what I like to eat," said Martorano, who calls himself as "a cook, not a chef."

"You're not gonna find salmon here, you're not gonna find rack of lamb. I don't like that. Everything I got is basically what I grew up with. I took it to another level. I used better ingredients than my mother used. But there was no vision."

Actually, there was one "vision" that Martorano brought to his business: gangster movies for his customers. Every night, his places show such flicks as "Goodfellas," "Ocean's 11" (the 1960 Frank Sinatra/"Rat Pack" original) and, of course, "The Godfather."

Martorano, who shares a name with his fourth cousin, veteran local radio gabber Steve Martorano, of WPHT (1210-AM), has an imposing physique. Add the tattoos and shaved head, and you get an intimidating appearance not unlike another South Philly celebrity foodie, Tony Luke Jr.

The two also share outgoing personalities, success as prepared food entrepreneurs (Martorano's marinara sauce is sold in Publix supermarkets in Florida), a love of music and an optimistic philosophy of self-empowerment, perseverance and giving back that belies their scary visages.

So, it's not surprising to learn that the two men are old friends, or that Luke thinks the world of his pal's work ethic and determination to succeed.

"Stevie is the quintessential example of, no matter where you come from, no matter what life throws at you, if you believe in yourself and have a passion for what you do, and you put 100 percent into what you do every time, eventually the door will open up," said Luke. "He lives and eats and sleeps his food. And he loves to educate people about food. He's a great dude. He makes me proud to be from South Philly."

A separated father of two grown sons, Martorano insisted he has no interests beyond his work. And while he is a full-fledged Floridian, he admitted that he holds a special place in his heart for his home turf.

"I get back to Philly once or twice a year," he said. "I miss the people, I miss the friends. Livin' in Florida is nice, and I have some nice friends here, but there's nothin' like the neighborhood."


" @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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