Monday, June 16, 2008

Cafe Martorano

Cafe Martorano, in the Rio in Las Vegas
Restaurant/nightclub with an owner who's a personality and the best Italian food this side of south Philly. Seriously.

We really owe this discovery to Joe Posnanski, who wrote about the Fort Lauderdale location without mentioning it by name, and to the commenter on his blog who named the restaurant and mentioned the Vegas location. Once we got to Vegas, we saw signs for it all over the place, but as it's at the Rio, it's doubtful we would've made the trip or the reservation without the initial recommendation. But boy oh boy, are we glad we did.

We'd never been to the Rio before, even though Penn and Teller and the famed Voodoo Lounge are there. It's an interesting casino, very obviously directed at the mid-twenties crowd: things stay open a little later, it's got that trashy carnival atmosphere, and there's a lot of bustling activity, kind of like a younger TI or a more flashy Excalibur. Cafe Martorano is located on the second floor of the main concourse, facing onto the enormous floating head that is the centerpiece of a regular show (which we did not, alas, see).

We'd gotten there a little early (I built in an allowance for a late arrival by our flight, which miraculously did not happen), so we checked in at the hostess stand and browsed the pictures of the owner with various celebrities while waiting for our table. I should add that both the woman who took the reservation over the phone and the hostess, upon learning that it was our first time, made special note to tell us how good the food was. Restaurant employees don't often brag about that, in my experience, so it felt genuine to us.

In fact, the staff all around were not only extremely friendly and helpful, they were all very proud of their restaurant and their food. Our waiter, Ken, helped us settle on the "South Philly style" calamari for our appetizer, several times using the phrase "out of this world" to describe the dishes. He also told us about the owner, Steve Martorano, who has his image on t-shirts (one hanging right near our table) and his imprint on the simple menu with an instruction at the bottom: "No substitutions. This is how I cook. Please enjoy and don't break balls." It doesn't get more South Philly than that.

"Is he a nice guy?" our waiter asked us, rhetorically. "No. But he's a great guy and a great personality." He wasn't in attendance at the Rio location, but was expected back for the wrap-up of the WSOP. Our waiter was also very proud of the famous people who were dining there that night, among them a rap star/actor and a professional football player.

But the food was, believe it or not, the main attraction. For the rest of our dinner, we picked a side of spaghetti, because in a new Italian place you want to see how they handle the basics, and the special: sea bass with jumbo lump crab and shrimp, spring pea and cheese risotto, and sauteed spinach with chilis.

Spaghetti in the United States has become a comfort food, any old pasta with tomato sauce thrown over it, maybe with meatballs or sausage or (if you're in the midwest) chopped-up hot dogs added. I tell you, this spaghetti we had at Cafe Martorano was to regular American spaghetti what champagne is to Martinelli's Sparkling Apple Juice. You can see the relationship, but wow, this was just in another league entirely. Thick, rich spaghetti sauce made from olive oil and San Marzano tomatoes, pasta cooked perfectly al dente, with garlic and wine to season it. It was just spaghetti, but sometimes when you get a simple food done to perfection, it's better than anything fancy. A couple months after our meal there, the spaghetti is what I remember the most. It's the one dish I would say we have to get again.

Not to say the rest of the food was bad. The sea bass was marvelously light and flaky, the shrimp and crab topping a nice accent to it. The smooth, creamy risotto matched it well, and the sauteed spinach had good texture and taste (that is, not slimy), except when one bit into a chili by accident. We didn't think we'd be able to eat light at a traditional Italian place, but it worked well and we had room for...

Tiramisu. This was really just good, not terrific, not overwhelming. It was the perfect size portion, though. We enjoyed the thick, not-too-sweet cream and the strong coffee taste (yes, even Tim the non-coffee-drinker).

We'd go back to Cafe Martorano again just for the food. The atmosphere and stellar service was the crab on the sea bass, so to speak. We're already planning our next dinner for our next trip to Vegas.

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