His rippling muscles covered in tattoos, Steve Martorano stood on the dance floor of his jam-packed new restaurant at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City…and wept.
It was a Saturday, almost midnight, the witching hour when this glitzy see-and-be-seen spot normally morphs from restaurant with music to nightclub with food. The lights dim, the colored strobes flash, the disco balls spin and the volume on the flat screens lining the tiled walls with continually looping mob movies is boosted, freed from the family-friendly mute button.
But on this night, at this moment, all went silent. Martorano addressed the crowd, his voice cracking: “I appreciate you all from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “I will do my best to never let you down.”
Martorano, you should know, has a following of East Coast snowbirds who frequent his flagship Café Martorano in Fort Lauderdale. (He also has outposts in Las Vegas and Hollywood, Florida.) For Martorano, a Philly native, AC is a kind of homecoming. “It feels amazing,” he said in a phone call after my visits. “I wish I would have opened here a long time ago.”
Unfortunately, on the night of his heartfelt speech, we did feel let down. My party were not seated until half an hour after our reservation. (Friends with later reservations told me they waited an hour for a table.) After our appetizers were belatedly cleared, so much time passed with nothing on our table that a server asked if we were interested in dessert.
By the time Martorano spoke, we were finally ready for dessert. Too bad my server never brought the menus. After waiting 20 minutes, I asked for the check, which took 20 minutes to arrive—then another 15 for someone to run my credit card.
Maybe service lapses are inevitable when a 300-seat restaurant is packed on a weekend. In the space formerly occupied by Luke Palladino, Matorano’s proved to be one of the most popular openings on the Shore last summer—and for good reason: The South Philly-inspired Italian-American cooking, while laughably expensive, was nearly faultless.
Dining early on a weeknight, service was smooth and friendly, and food arrived in a timely manner. The trade-off—if glitz is your thing—is that you don’t get the late-night bombast. But in my experience, the food is consistently good on any night.
Café Martorano serves “honest Italian-American food with big flavor,” Martorano told me. “My family’s recipes have played a big part in the dishes we serve.” Indeed, in his first book (Yo Cuz! My Life My Food My Way, 2011) and his brand-new one (It Ain’t Sauce, It’s Gravy), Martorano essentially says the love baked, braised or simmered into his mother’s and grandmother’s cooking saved him from a life on the streets. So his slow-braised meats, like pig’s feet cooked in crushed San Marzano tomatoes, for him represent redemption. For the diner, hunting for scraps of tender pork between the knobby trotter bones is a joy rarely offered at high-end spots. Another rare pleasure is finding scungilli (conch) amid the familiar calamari, shrimp and lump crabmeat in a spicy spaghetti pescatore. “I can really sell things [in Atlantic City] I can’t sell in other cities around the country,” he said. “People on the East Coast will order this kind of Italian food.”
That’s no knock on the menu’s less homespun pleasures, like fried calamari flecked with sesame seeds in a sweet-and-sour chili sauce, or Eggplant Stacked, his elaborated caprese salad: a cylinder of warm fried eggplant slices alternating with cool slices of mozzarella and fresh tomato, the stack lavished with syrupy aged balsamic. Mainstream dishes showed attention to detail. The breaded cutlets in a veal parm retained their crispness under layers of gravy and cheese. The thick-cut veal chop came smothered in Fontina and mushrooms simmered in Marsala. When carefully prepared with fine ingredients, classics like these can satisfy in a way prissy experiments can’t.
It’s a shame the pleasures come at a prohibitive cost. Martorano’s other locations always offer family-size portions. At Harrah’s, the portions are normal size. The fantastic Eggplant Stacked is a $23 appetizer. Bucatini carbonara—Martorano said he buys Rustichella d’Abruzzo, “the best high-quality pasta, straight from Italy”—rivaled versions I’ve had in Rome. But at $28, it cost more, even factoring in the exchange rate.
Martorano’s is famous for its egg-battered, lemon-sauced lobster Francese served with jumbo lump crabmeat, usually a special. I’ve had it a half-dozen times in Fort Lauderdale, where the price was $75, but the sheer amount of tender lobster was massive. At Harrah’s, the dish cost $65, but consisted of two small tails entombed in spongy batter. Another disappointment was the bowl of oversalted orecchiette tossed with escarole, mushy beans and basically unbrowned sausage.
Unlike the rest of the fare, desserts are halfhearted and one-dimensional. A waffle-and-ice cream sundae was spongy and messy; a chocolate layer cake topped with a chocolate disc bearing that “Yo Cuz!” catchphrase was no better than catering-hall caliber.
You feel like shouting “Yo Cuz!” when trying to flag down a harried server on a busy night. The servers wear tags with oddball names like Noodles or Toast.
At Martorano’s the food is satisfying, the prices are high and the experience—well, it’s like no other.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Italian