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I promised you restaurant reviews, including some of the hidden gems in South Philly.  But its fitting that my first review is of the finest Italian-American restaurant I have ever visited.  It’s not in South Philly, it’s in South Florida and is the creation of Steve Martorano who was born and raised in South Philly.  Steve, who recently published his first book, “Yo Cuz! My Life My Food My Way”, is the heavyweight champion of Italian-American cooking and all things “Yo Cuz”.  His book is part cookbook, but much more than that, it is an autobiography.  I’m not going to review the book, I’ll save that for another post, but I highly recommend you buy it because it is a fantastic story by a guy who writes and cooks from the heart.

Steve left his South Philly roots for Fort Lauderdale almost 20 years ago and opened Café Martorano in a non-descript strip mall on Oakland Park Boulevard at A1A.   Café Martorano has to be experienced to truly appreciate the show.  Words cannot do it justice.  The décor is contemporary and the atmosphere is part restaurant, part theater, and part nightclub.  The vibe is always amazing.  Steve, who was a DJ back in the day at places like Valentino’s in Cherry Hill, HBs in the Northeast, the London Victory Club in Center City, and the Mansion in Wildwood, continues to control the sound and video while spinning out some of the most amazing food you’ll ever taste.  Steve is all about family and friends and it shows in the love which goes into every dish his kitchen produces.  Its no surprise that Café Martorano has been the choice of actors, musicians, and sports figures from Paul Sorvino, Tom Cruise, and James Cahn, to Ludicrus and Jamie Fox to Dan Marino, Shaquille O’Neill and Peyton Manning, just to name a few.

Steve will tell you he’s not a chef, he’s a cook.  Call him what you may, the reality is the guy is an artist in everything he does.  His style of food is a reinterpretation of old school Italian-American classics with an up-to-date pop culture spin.  All the while, you’ll enjoy the food listening to classic disco, soulful R&B, and always Sinatra, mixed with video spots from such classics as The Godfather, Goodfellas, and a host of more current films.

As the night progresses, so does the volume until it reaches nightclub status.  During any visit, you could be lucky enough to witness an impromptu performance by the likes of Fat Joe, Babyface, Chris Tucker, or Tom Jones.  On one of my recent visits, The Sugarhill Gang broke into some old school rap while customers danced on the tables.

Steve is a perfectionist, obsessed with doing it right and orchestrating a most unique restaurant.  Even with his fame, having appeared on such TV programs such as the Jimmy Kimmel and Monique shows, he continues to remember where he came from.   The son of a part-time loan shark, Steve Martorano took one of Philadelphia’s most notorious names and made it into its most delicious.

So what about the food, isn’t this a food review?  If you want the recipes, you’re gonna have to buy the book.  I could not begin to narrow it down to just a few – it would not do Steve justice.  You need to experience his entire repertoire.  But I can make some recommendations, having been a regular patron myself for the last 10 years.  If asked to choose my “last meal”, it would have to include the world famous Martorano meatballs in gravy served over an Italian salad.  That’s not just my opinion, according to Gourmet Magazine, they “may be the best meatball in the world”.   Sorry Mother and Grandmom.

How many times have you debated the best Philly cheesesteak?  Common answers are Chink’s, John’s, Steve’s, Pat’s, Jim’s – but the best Philly cheesesteak resides in Fort Lauderdale.  Steve credits his mother for it and tells it this way, “My mom got some top of the round meat and had the butcher slice it thin.  She’d put a little bit of extra-virgin olive oil, a tablespoon of butter and sliced white onion into a pan then seasoned it with a little Kosher salt and crushed black pepper.  She’d cook the onion slowly unit it got brown.  In a sauté pan she’d warm extra-virgin olive oil, and after it was heated she’d add the steak.  When it started cooking she’d pull it apart until it was cooked all the way through and then she’d season the meat with Kosher salt and crushed black pepper and add the cooked onions then put slices of American cheese on top, and cover the pan.  When the cheese starts melting, mix everything together, then stuff it into your favorite crisp Italian bread.  Add sliced cherry peppers and that is South Philly all the way.”

Veal insalata, linguine aglio e olio, veal picatta, linguine with claims and prosciutto, mussels marinara, bucatini amatriciana, lobster franchaise, pork chop with vinegar and peppers, orecchiette with broccoli rabe, penne with cognac, grilled octopus pizza, pappardelle with parmigianna cream sauce, claims Pavarotti, guanciale and onions, pastini and butter, peppers and eggs – – hungry yet?  Sounds simplistic, it is, but the execution isn’t.  This is the real deal.  From the veal stock which simmers for 24 hours to the Sunday pork gravy made with pork butt, fat back, pigs feet, and San Marzano tomatoes.   Steve spares no expense when it comes to cooking with the finest and freshest ingredients.

If you want to experience the flavors of love, make Café Martorano a destination trip – only then will you understand and appreciate the most innovative Italian-American cooking in the country.

To get a true flavor for the Martorano’s experience, check out his website at cafemartorano.com.  You can also purchase his cookbook online, along with his pasta (macaroni) sauces.

Café Martorano has also opened in the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and in the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Hollywood, FL.  Steve is also rumored to be working on a reality TV show.

Yo Cuz, don’t miss this experience, no other restaurant compares!

P.S.  It’s gravy not sauce.