Restaurant powerhouse Steve Martorano brings a taste of his native South Philly to the shore.
Rigatoni with Sunday pork gravy, adapted from the way Steve Martorano’s mother made it every weekend, is one of the signature dishes at Martorano’s.
Powerfully built and possessing an unmistakably Sinatra-esque “My Way” swagger, culinary star Steve Martorano goes beyond big—he’s larger than life. He’s also a self-proclaimed “something out of nothing” kind of guy who’s gone from scraping by on DJ gigs and selling homemade sandwiches out of a rowhouse basement to fast-tracking stardom as a chef and entrepreneur. Today, this “cuz” (the chef’s signature catchphrase) from the streets of the City of Brotherly Love is the very stuff of South Philly legend.
Since the eagerly anticipated July opening of his eponymous Martorano’s at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City, shore goers have been lapping up the same red gravy-splashed taste of Italian-American home cooking the restaurateur offers at his other acclaimed eateries in Las Vegas, Fort Lauderdale, and Hollywood, Florida.
“I’m South Philly through and through,” says Martorano of his no-nonsense approach to business and straightforward menu with its strict no-substitutions policy.
Servers picking up their orders from the open kitchen.
The food here is presented exactly the way he was taught by family members over the years. “Every Sunday morning, my mother made a big pot of gravy with pigs’ feet, pigs’ skin, ribs, sausage, braciole, and meatballs,” he says. “Now rigatoni with Sunday pork gravy and the meatball salad are two of the signature dishes at my restaurants.” Serving as executive chef, Martorano finds comfort in having sous chef Dianna Peddicord as his backup, whether he’s in the kitchen or traveling to one of his other dining operations.
The enterprising, self-taught cook-turned restaurateur also runs his own clothing, wine, and jarred tomato sauce lines, and he’s published a cookbook, too (penning Yo Cuz! My Life My Food My Way in 2011). So comparing his from-the-Philly-streets story to that of filmdom’s own heavyweight champ, Rocky Balboa, would be no understatement.
A simple vodka cocktail to go with the unpretentious atmosphere.
In fact, Sly Stallone’s rags-to-riches character is an ongoing atmospheric image at Martorano’s. As I step inside, my eyes linger over the gleaming white subway tile floors, across tonnages of black and white marble. Heavily suspended disco balls form a sequined time-warp overhead and toward an array of TVs playing a continual loop of Italian-themed cinematic favorites: Rocky doing his “Yo, Adrian!” thing; Sonny paying his last toll in The Godfather; Scarface’s Tony Montana introducing his “leetle friend.” All the while, a Rat Pack-heavy soundtrack intermingles with calls from the open kitchen for chefs to ready up Martorano’s family-recipe dishes, like his cooked-to-order eggplant stack, bucatini carbonara, and homemade meatballs.
Ah, those famous meatballs. Worked in batches and pan-browned—so good yet almost shockingly simple—they truly are a classic dish. Soon after, a first-cut, bone-in veal chop follows, with gooey mozzarella and a rich Marsala wine sauce cascading over its thick sides. Meanwhile, the rigatoni with Sunday pork gravy studded with melting pork chunks is better than anything my Italian nonna-in-law ever cooked (sorry, Grammy!), even after her own countless Sundays spent in front of the stove.
Steve Martorano showcases the big flavors of his family’s Italian-American recipes.
My smooth server, Colin, tries to steer me toward the homemade Belgian waffles and ice cream for dessert. Instead, I opt for a dictionary thick slice of red velvet cake as I take in the TV’s current offering—a scene from Casino—while splurging in my own real-life casino experience here at Harrah’s. All around me, revelers from nearly every age group feast and celebrate. “People love this honest, Italian-American food with big flavor,” Martorano says. “I’m old-school, plain and simple.” 777 Harrah’s Blvd., Atlantic City, 609-441-5000