At first glance Steve Martorano is intimidating. He’s a big, well-muscled guy with tattoos like many chefs and cooks these days, but it’s more than that. He cuts an imposing figure. That feeling of intimidation goes right out the window when he utters, “How you doin’?” Immediately I was transported back to my roots and we fell into a very natural conversation. I met with Steve while he was in town for Vegas Uncork’d after just receiving the Dom Perignon Award of Excellence at UNLVino. I was invited to meet with him in a private setting with his lovely fiancé and he was refreshing, charming and unguarded in our interview.

Growing up in south Philly, Steve had few choices for a career. He could go into the “family business,” aka The Mob, and spend part of his life in jail like friends and family, or he could work hard and live hand to mouth. He wanted more, but had no vision of what that “more” would look like. His dad owned a neighborhood bar and Steve convinced his dad to let him put food on the menu one night. It was something never considered before, but Steve went ahead and did it. He sold out the room and then his dad said, “Ok, what’s next?” What came next was a series of small business ventures which grew into the business he has now.

Steve is passionate about his food. He refuses to compromise on quality at any stage of the process. “Gravy and meatballs are made every day. There are no vats of anything sitting in my walk-in.” Everything on the menu is taste tested by Steve personally. If he wouldn’t eat it at home, it doesn’t go on the menu, no matter how trendy it might be. Steve’s food isn’t fancy; it’s family style and fun. Eating his food was just like eating at my mother-in-law’s table. The pigs’ feet and pork braciole tasted so much like hers that my husband wanted to pick up the feet and eat them with his hands to get every glorious bite off the bones. If you ever had a good Italian American friend and got to eat at their table, this is what Steve’s food is all about. He says that the best compliment anyone can give him is “this tastes just like Mom used to make.” That’s what he is striving for. He is very smart in that he is not trying to please everyone, but he is trying to make the best Italian American food he knows how to make from the silky gravy, to the flavorful meatball to the al dente pasta. And Steve is not just passionate about his food, but feels responsible for his food. When you go to a Martorano’s and he is in house, you won’t find him touching tables and visiting in the dining room. You will find him in the kitchen, working the line and taking personal responsibility for each dish that enters the dining room.

The menu is not extensive, it’s very approachable. The thing that triggered me into laughter, out loud, in the restaurant was Steve’s personal quotes on the menu about his food: no substitutions and how you either “get it” or you don’t. Clearly, I got it, because I enjoyed everything about my Martorano’s experience, from the ambient swing music to the movies on the flat screens to the food itself. And take note fellow restaurateurs; while the lighting was dim in the restaurant, I didn’t need to whip out my flashlight phone app to read the menu, it was backlit. A small detail for sure, but one I absolutely appreciated.

Despite all of his success, two cookbooks, five restaurants and a recent segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, he still feels like a bit of an outsider. He admittedly admires top tier chefs and what they do, but feels he is not like them partially because he is self-taught. His humble beginnings and his self-effacing manner make him immediately likable. He acknowledges he “lucked into” everything. Being a restaurateur was not a dream of his. Unlike other restaurateurs and chefs who KNEW this business was their destiny, Steve had no vision of this being his future. He started cooking to pay the bills and stay out of trouble and in some ways feels he stumbled into success. “I don’t know another guy [in this industry] that came from literally nothing and now has five joints of his own. Do you?” Indeed, both lucky and humble.