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Gravy train

Let's end the rumor right now. Steve Martorano is not closing his more-than-20-year-old Oakland Park Boulevard restaurant.

Quite the opposite: He's in major expansion mode. Martorano's Italian-American Kitchen officially opened last weekend in Atlantic City's Harrah's Resort. He has a second Las Vegas restaurant opening later this year, plus there's his place at the Seminole Hard Rock. He also believes that Miami would be a good match for his celebrity-style of restaurateuring, but nothing is yet in the works.

"Yo Cuz! My Life, My Food, My Way," the cookbook/autobiography he self-published a few years ago, has been picked up Knopf. An expanded version, to be released in October, is now titled "It Ain't Sauce, It's Gravy: Macaroni, Homestyle Cheesesteaks, the Best Meatballs in the World, and How Food Saved My Life."

More important, Café Martorano seems more grown up these days. I wasn't there when he opened 20 years ago, but I've heard stories about the partying and the jockeying for tables and status that went on. Many of those same folks are still coming, but they're drinking and partying a little less. Heck, these days you can even make a reservation, always a good idea on weekends.

Martorano still spends plenty of time in Fort Lauderdale, where you'll find him in the corner of the open kitchen, keeping an eye on the 85-seat dining room. Another 20 people can sit at the bar, where cocktails are now served along with wine and beer. All summer long, the restaurant is serving watermelon, lime, coconut and cherry water ice martinis ($15), an adult version of the Italian ices Martorano grew up with in Philadelphia.

Café Martorano continues to excite me. The meatball with Sunday pork gravy ($15), which started the meatball craze in Fort Lauderdale, continues to be the best. It may be because the gravy gets its richness from pork lard, which adds creaminess, but not the smokiness you get from bacon.

The kitchen will serve you a gently pan-seared, thick slice of that pork lard ($14), even though it's not on the menu. It's ridiculously creamy, and not for the faint-hearted.

There's nothing better than watching Martorano pulling fresh mozzarella from behind the glass partition and moments later have the still warm cheese delivered to your table. He rolls it with broccoli rabe or with a mixture of prosciutto and tomato ($22). Order the antipasto platter ($22), and be sure to ask for what has become one my favorite Martorano dishes: ground mortadella served as a spread. It's salty, fatty, creamy and perfect on bread.

Fried risotto balls or arancini ($16) come three to order. Depending on the day, the risotto may contain either broccoli rabe or spinach. There's a piece of sharp provolone cheese in the center. Hot peppers ($19) are stuffed with ground veal, sage, onion and mozzarella. The eggplant stack ($23) layers pan-fried, breaded slices of eggplant with house-made mozzarella, marinated tomatoes, arugula and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Martorano was an early proponent of shared appetizers, well before they were called small plates. In many ways, this is still the best way to experience Café Martorano. There are, however, several veal and chicken dishes ($28-$34), plus a fresh fish of the day. Pasta dishes include delicious bucatini carbonara ($26), made with pancetta, cream, egg Parm-Reg and loads of freshly ground black pepper.

The music and movies that always made dinner at Café Martorano a multimedia experience are still here. You'll hear Barry White and the Bee Gees, Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the course of dinner. Sometimes, there's even a bit of a light show, which ebbs and flows depending on the crowd.

Given all this hubbub, the staff remains outstanding, with faultless skills and almost Old World manners. It's that formality mixed with the informality of the Italian-American menu and atmosphere that makes Café Martorano one of the best restaurants in South Florida. or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.

3343 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale


Cuisine: Italian

Cost: Expensive

Hours: Dinner nightly

Reservations: Strongly suggested on weekends

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Can be loud

Outside smoking: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: $5 valet

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