Saturday 18 April, 2015

Steve Martarano Is Not A Chef


Ask him. He will tell you himself. Of course, what he means is something a little different than you might think.

"I never had that opportunity, to go to cooking school and all that," he told me, standing in the kitchen of his newest Martarano's restaurant, in the Paris Las Vegas hotel & casino. "But to me, my mother and my grandmother, who taught me how to cook, are the best chefs in the world."

Amen. Although I think Steve might be a bit intimidated by that term--all 'Chef' means is that you run a kitchen--and Steve happens to run five.


I don't need to overpraise Mr. Martarano (he isn't lacking attention), but at the same time, my visit with him impressed me that what he does is the kind of thing that a lot of food writers underappreciate. In the realm of "authenticity," he isn't trying to recreate the kind of food you would find in Italy, even in the Sicily, from where he proudly traces his history. When I asked how his Puttanesca might be different from one you'd find in Rome, he quickly shot back, "I don't know. I never been to Rome, cuz." Got it.

I might personally have more curiosity about a thorough answer to that question, as a cook, but I get it.

Martarano's linguine pescatore--or the version Steve made me anyway! (no complaints)

What Martarano IS doing, is being authentic to himself, to his experience, and to the mid-Atlantic interpolation of Italian immigrant cooking as he experienced it in Philadelphia and South Jersey. Which, if you get over your cultural myopia, is just as legitimate as a cook from Lyon or Kobnhavn doing things his or her way.

His dishes are ingredient-driven, very simply plated, and overall very anti-trend. They are neither the huge supersized portions that you see at other chains like Carmine's and Maggiano's nor the more nouvelle portions you might find at a Scott Conant or Mario Batali place (and that's not a dig at any of them). You're not going to go hungry, but hopefully you wont feel like an over-ordering idiot either. I have no doubt they will largely look the same in 10 years from now as they did 10 years ago.

Martarano openly explains that "the Martarano brand" is about offering a form of culinary nostalgia to people who have risen in their station and can afford a higher price point. But he isn't just jacking up prices for the sake of it--he shows me the pasta they use for everything, Rustichella d'Abruzzo, which another Sicilian friend of mine confirms is about as good as you can get if you're not making it yourself (maybe better). Do not confuse this with the DiCecco pasta or other brands you'll see at other restaurants charging the same prices. It makes a difference. Martarano's other ingredients--the San Marzano tomatoes etc.--are equally considered.

So, when you get cheese steak, it is not going to remind you of Pat's or Geno's. The meat is prime, the cheese is real, and the bread is crusty and solid. It it worth every bit of the $20 charge ($19 if you join Caesar's players club, which is free). Ditto the meatball--best on the Strip for my money, even if there are close seconds--with fresh ricotta. Ditto the eggplant stack and the linguine pescatore, which is not cheap, but if you want cheap, I can show you to 90 other "Eye-tailian" spots in Vegas. The one dish that seems to have a little twist to it is the fried calamari, finished with jalapenos and what I think is mae ploy sauce. But it's a great rendition, tender, and just spicy-sweet enough, so I'm not complaining.

I don't entirely "get" the whole basement Catholic communion disco party loud gangster movies vibe--but that's why I prefer the new Paris location to his first Vegas restaurant in the Rio, which is a much more claustrophic experience. So I will happily sit at the bar or one of the "outside" cafe tables and enjoy this simple, sincere food.

Make a reservation or get more info about Martarano's Paris Las Vegas

Learn more about Rustichella d'Abruzzo pastas

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