Doubling down, with meatballs on the side

When someone says, "Hit me" at Martorano's restaurant, it can mean another drink, another meatball or another card.

The over-the-top eatery is now serving up blackjack along with its signature pasta dishes. Martorano's, just a short stroll from the casino at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, is the first restaurant in the U.S. to feature blackjack, industry sources say. And the bold move seems to be working. Even actor Al Pacino dropped by a few nights ago to play before sitting down to dinner.

. Owner-chef Steve Martorano said for three years he urged Seminole Tribe of Florida leaders to add two blackjack tables to his restaurant, and the tribe's new COO approved them. The first cards were dealt on April 21.

"I see it kind of like a speakeasy," said Martorano, who can be seen flashing his tattooed, muscular arms on billboards throughout South Florida. "People would have dinner, and gamble in the lounge before and after."


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The games are legal because Martorano's restaurant is on Seminole property, and the tribe has a five-year agreement with the state to offer blackjack. The Seminoles handle the gambling operation at Martorano's, providing trained dealers, surveillance cameras and a pit boss.

The casino gets the blackjack revenue. Martorano's gets the increased traffic, the ambience and high-rolling diners who don't want to stray too far from the action. Players are allowed to eat and play simultaneously, though Martorano discourages them from doing so.

"It's Italian food, cuz," he said. "We really don't want gravy on the blackjack table."

Martorano opened his first restaurant, Café Martorano, in Fort Lauderdale 20 years ago, and later brought restaurants to Las Vegas and the Seminole Hard Rock. He said he will fly to Las Vegas on Monday to propose blackjack at his restaurant located in the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino.

Along the way, Martorano has gone well beyond the kitchen. He has released a book titled "Yo Cuz! My Life, My Food, My Way" and produces his own line of sauces and wines, as well as jewelry and apparel. All that has garnered him airtime on TV shows such as "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and "The Real Housewives of Miami."

"We haven't had a failure yet," Martorano said. "Not bad for a guy who never went to school."

Blackjack in a restaurant, however, may be a challenge, said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"It's not like you're just tossing dice up against a wall," he said. "But it doesn't seem like a horrible idea. You have people on the property because they're obviously not opposed to gambling."

Steve Bourie of Hollywood, whose American Casino Guide outlines amenities at more than 750 U.S. casinos, said he had never heard of a restaurant offering blackjack.

"Interesting idea, but do people really want to play blackjack in a restaurant?" he asked. "I guess we'll find out."

Martorano noted that the tables are a test run, but he'd like to eventually have six.

Experts say gambling in restaurants isn't unusual. Casual dining in Las Vegas and Atlantic City is often punctuated by "bar-top" video-poker screens, and servers stroll restaurant floors to run keno bets. Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas even has a "swim-up" blackjack pit.

Martorano's is different. The restaurant is designed to attract A-listers who visit the Seminole Hard Rock. In addition to pacino last Thursday, the cast of "The Sopranos," Shaquille O'Neal and Ludacris have dined there. .

Seminole COO Larry Mullin said it was nice to time the blackjack rollout to Pacino's appearance, but it was just something he was eager to approve. Mullin, who has been with the tribe for three months, has also signed off on a $10 million guarantee poker tournament, the largest in the world.

"I just want to get everything done," Mullin said. "I just think the sky's the limit here.

"The one thing about Martorano's is that the experience here should be a whole different deal. The fun you can have here should be a little different than expected."

Mullin said the blackjack tables, which often carry a $25 minimum bet, likely aren't appropriate for other Paradise Live restaurants. But he said part of his decision will be based on whether Martorano's is a winner or a bust.

NSortal@SouthFlorida.com