Cafe Martorano is, according to chef/owner Steve Martorano, authentically old-school.
Somewhere, an Italian grandmother is weeping.
You may have heard of Martorano. He stirred up a little controversy not long ago by announcing that he wouldn't serve cocktails with dinner, because hard liquor dulls the taste buds. I took it for predictable posturing by a new guy in town, and since we rarely have cocktails anyway, didn't care a whole lot.
But then I went to Cafe Martorano last week and started thinking. Let's see; you can get a cocktail in the lounge minutes before dinner. Huh. The restorative qualities of the human taste buds are truly astounding.
Then again, there are a lot of things Martorano won't let you do in his restaurant:
• He won't let you drink tap water (although we were able to on an earlier visit). Greeted with the standard new-place-in-town "still or sparkling," we clearly specified tap. When a waiter's assistant arrived with a bottle of Voss, we said again, no, we don't want bottled water. Somewhat sheepishly, he replied, "This is our tap water." It also is $7 a bottle. So I guess Martorano hasn't heard about the growing national trend -- led by Alice Waters -- of no longer serving bottled water because of environmental issues.
As for us, we buy it by the case (and are starting to feel pretty guilty about it) -- but when dining out, we pretty much drink wine, so we skip the bottled water. Besides, good restaurants have water filters. If his water is so bad, does Martorano cook his pasta in Voss?
• He doesn't have a printed menu, another change from our last visit. That works in restaurants with simple menus where the server can say "Coq au Vin" or "Bouillabaisse" and leave it at that, but Martorano's dishes are fairly complex, and with the distractions from the audio and video equipment, it's difficult to follow what's what. And prices aren't specified. Not to go out on a limb here, but I'm guessing this is the only $72 steak pizzaiola in the country.
• He won't let you order that $72 steak pizzaiola cooked more than medium. Again, no problem for us, but what about people with compromised immune systems or who get squeamish over blood?
• He allows no substitutions, despite boasting that every dish is made to order.
• He has his servers sit down at the table with a bowl of pasta while they're reciting the menu, so they can hold up the dry rigatoni or fusilli or whatever, just in case you don't know spaghetti from linguine.
• He apparently doesn't see a problem in parts of the same course arriving at different times. Dishes taken to the table with no regard to service makes sense in restaurants where sharing is expected. But when a couple are having dinner and one appetizer arrives a good five minutes before the other, it inevitably launches an endless round of "Please, go ahead"; "No, no; I'll wait for you" -- at least in people who were brought up to know which bread plate was theirs.
• He likes noise way too much. We purposely went early because we know the place turns into a nightclub later, and the Christmas-carol audio was fine. But just before 8, it (and the video screens) inexplicably flipped into a couple of scenes from "Home Alone," so loud that the film's soundtrack was distorted. And shortly after, it switched to poundingly loud music.
• He doesn't serve coffee, only cappuccino or espresso (although the restaurant does serve decaf espresso, and our espresso arrived without the requisite lemon twist). Why? Hell if I know; by that point I was so annoyed I didn't even want to hear it.
Clearly Martorano considers himself a maverick. There's his classy little slogan, "Don't break balls," his boasted "Philly attitude" and his ubiquitous photographs (some with "celebrities" who would be mysteries without the handy captions) in sleeveless shirts, the better to show off his heavily tattooed, bulging biceps. The emperor's not naked; he's just wearing a wife-beater.
But let's talk about the food. While the shrimp scampi ($23) was too heavy on the olive oil and contained uncooked garlic cloves that lent an acrid note, and the cannoli ($12) was too heavy on the chocolate (words I never thought I'd speak), they had plenty of redeeming qualities -- a profusion of peas and a rustic-bread raft to soak up the garlic sauce with the scampi, an excellent filling and nice crisp crust in the cannoli -- and the other dishes were very well executed.
The fussilli of the evening ($38, and that's spiral pasta, for the great unwashed among you) was perfectly al dente and topped with chunks of very lightly breaded, carefully sauteed chicken, tomatoes and chunks of pepper -- mostly sweet and perfectly crisp tender, with enough hot pepper to provide just a bit of zing.
The eggplant stack ($24) was characterized by pleasing contrasts in flavor and texture, with alternating layers of lightly breaded fried eggplant, mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, tomatoes and a generous amount of shaved Parmesan.
That $72 steak pizzaiola was good, the meat rare as ordered and well-flavored, topped with tomatoes and roasted red peppers (which didn't overwhelm, as they tend to) and accompanied by a pile of sauteed spinach and some pasta.
The wine service was fine. We ordered one of the lowest priced wines on the list -- a 2004 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chiante Classico ($50), which worked out pretty well with all of that garlic. Despite the limitations on his performance, our waiter was pretty good; he even told us the waiters were lobbying for the return of the printed menus. Portions were huge, which might explain the large parties of large men that seemed to predominate.
Considering the food in a vacuum, while it wasn't a $285 dinner by any stretch of the imagination, it was a good dinner.
Which makes the rest of it all the more frustrating. Martorano does honor centuries of fine Italian culinary tradition, which has only gotten better with the passage of time. But there's a reason they call it the "hospitality industry," and that he doesn't honor. And he won't until he starts to see his restaurant as something other than a cash cow and his customers as something other than a nuisance. But I feel certain that as far as he's concerned, the rest of us just don't get it.
One thing I do know: There are a lot of great restaurants in Las Vegas. And the vast majority of them understand the concept of hospitality.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.