You can call him a gangster or a goombah (you won’t be the first or the last), but whatever you do, don’t call him a chef.
“I’m just a cook,” Steve Martorano insists.
The 52-year-old doesn’t really look like one either. Instead of chef whites, he wears a tight T-shirt, military-inspired shorts and a winter hat. Instead of standard kitchen clogs, he dons blue Nikes. His exposed arms are covered in tattoos, and diamonds bling loudly from his ears, neck, fingers and wrists. Nothing about him is by the book, aside from his family recipes.
But Martorano, who runs his eponymous restaurant at the Rio, doesn’t live by anybody’s rules, aside from his own.
“I don’t wear that white coat, I don’t follow that foodie group, I don’t hang with that circle,” he says. “They just think we’re gangsters.”
His gangster reputation doesn’t come without reason: Martorano was a gangster at one point. His uncle, Raymond “Long John” Martorano, was a high-ranking member of the Angelo Bruno crime family back East, served 18 years in prison and was murdered shortly after his release. And a cousin, George Martorano, remains behind bars following a marijuana-smuggling conviction in 1982.
“He’s the longest-serving nonviolent offender in the history of America,” Martorano says. “He’s been in jail longer than [Nelson] Mandela was.”
Martorano acknowledges that he, too, has had trouble with the law, but he has never been convicted and has no criminal record. Not that he was an angel by any means. “I wanted to be a gangster all my life,” he says. “When I was in my 20s, I was on the street. I loan-sharked, I did it all.”
When his loan-shark father died in his sleep, most expected his son would take his place, but Martorano surprised them all.
“I walked away,” he says. “I said no.”
You can read about the rest of his novel upbringing in his autobiography (complete with recipes), due out in December. It’ll build to the climax that is today’s mini restaurant empire, which has become his life’s obsession.
“I worry about my spaghetti marinara as much as I worry about my kids,” says the father of two.
It all started, slowly, in his hometown of South Philadelphia, where he sold sandwiches out of his basement, a.k.a. Steve’s Italian Kitchen. “For three months, the phone never rang,” he recalls. “I had to throw food away.”
His first order came in at 8 p.m. one night: two hoagies for $7. He delivered the sandwiches and received a $2 tip.
Business soon picked up, but so did trouble with his landlord, who didn’t appreciate a sandwich business operating inside one of his apartments. Police were called, and operations quickly moved to Martorano’s mother’s house.
“My mother would answer the phone. I had a four-burner stove in the basement,” Martorano says. “I did that for five years.”
Today, he has namesake restaurants in Florida, in addition to the Rio, in the space formerly occupied by Rosemary’s ill-fated second location. Martorano says it hasn’t been easy for him, either.
“It’s been a struggle, but we’ve been here for three years,” he says. “I get hit every day by people saying it’s too expensive, the music’s too loud.”
His concept—high-end Italian comfort food in a nightclub-inspired environment—isn’t something that everyone appreciates.
“The word’s called ‘it,’” Martorano says. “If you walk in here and don’t get it, we’re the biggest mistake of your life. But if you get it, we’re great.”
Indeed, the music is loud (he plays a lot of Barry White, Al Green and old-school slow-jams from the DJ booth near the kitchen), and cheaper Italian fare can be found elsewhere. He charges $44 for veal parmisiana, for example, but the cutlet is tender and it comes topped with fresh mozzarella and a side of homemade gnocchi.
“People expect Italian food to be inexpensive because of what’s out there,” he laments. But high-end ingredients come at a price. He uses Giuseppe Cocco pasta, which costs $7 a pound; San Marzano tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil of Naples, Italy; and Laudemio Tenuta Cantagallo olive oil, which costs $42 a bottle.
After that, nothing too fancy happens—just “old-school” cooking.
“It’s the right way to do it,” Martorano says. “I’m not changing, I’m going to continue doing what I do. If I die tonight, I did it my way; if I live to be 100, I still did it my way.”