Cafe Martorano certainly seemed promising. The restaurant previously appeared in national food publications and chef-owner Steve Martorano already cemented his reputation in South Florida. The former Philadelphia DJ relocated to Ft. Lauderdale more than 16 years ago and opened a restaurant with fewer than 10 tables. His success in the kitchen allowed him to knock down a wall and to recently expand to the Hard Rock Seminole Casino. Three-and-a-half years ago, Café Martorano debuted on the NBA All-Star weekend when Adam “Pacman” Jones made it rain at a strip club and the bouncer was tragically shot.
Café Martorano is an Italian oasis in the depths of the hell that is the Rio, a cacophany of booming music, gaming noises, people and lights that comes across like some kind of twisted take on Carnival. Thankfully, the noise more or less stopped at the restaurant’s front door.
Inside, the Sopranos appear on flat screen TVs, along with the game of the moment. In the dining room, windows overlook the hotel’s swimming pool. An open kitchen sports a big M. Overhead, a retractable skylight hosts handpainted “leaves” and offers views to the top of the Rio tower.
The Homemade Meatball (normally $14) has built a loyal following in Florida, Vegas and beyond, and it was pretty easy to see why. The massive quarter-pound orbs are made of veal, pork and beef, fried to get the outsides crispy, then simmered in San Marzano “gravy” for a few hours. The final touches include a dusting of shaved Parmesan and a fluffy squiggle of ricotta. Scott, my waiter, said that Joey Chestnut was just in town for World Series of Poker and dominated a meatball-eating competition by downing 50 two-ounce balls. The thought of that makes me cringe, but a single meatball certainly delivered.
Bibz Shrimp, developed by a Hawaiian cook in Vegas but named for Ft. Lauderdale cook, involved jumbo prawns that they cut and pan-fried until crispy in a sweet and spicy chili sauce. The dish had a lasting impact thanks to basil and shaved jalapenos, which appeared with seeds, stems and all.
At this point in my food-filled weekend, it was time to make some crucial decisions to help avoid lasting gastrointestinal damage. My waiter wisely suggested half-orders of two different entrees. Why not? The more flavor experiences, the better. Fra Diavola featured al dente spaghetti with shrimp, clams and lump crab meat in a spicier-than-normal tomato sauce. The dividing line between my two half-orders was a satisfying saute of spinach, olive oil and minced garlic.
Veal Cutlet Parmigiana (a full order’s normally $44) featured house-made mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil. Unfortunately, this dish failed to deliver, with gummy, undesirable cheese and a surprisingly bland veal base.
Cafe Martorano’s meatball certainly evoked memories of my youth, and while the shrimp dish was unrelatable, it still tasted good. The pasta was solid, but may not have been worth the high menu price. And the veal cutlet would have gone back to the kitchen if I actually paid the full $44 fee. Based on my single meal, Cafe Martorano would overall be worth visiting for Italian food in Las Vegas, but it may be a good idea to bypass the big ticket items in favor of the more interesting (and lower priced) starters and pasta dishes.
Note: This meal was part of a media trip sponsored by Caesars Entertainment Inc. for food bloggers from across the country. Everything was on the house except for the tip.