THIS YEAR'S Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival will have a distinctly South Philly accent.
That's because Steve Martorano is among the celebrity stove jockeys on board as the fourth annual four-day culinary orgy kicks off Thursday. It's being staged by Caesars Entertainment Inc., owner of four AyCee casinos.
Martorano (a fourth cousin of the WPHT-AM talk-show host of the same name), 54, went from making hoagies-for-delivery in his downtown apartment to being a major Las Vegas and South Florida restaurateur and favorite of such A-listers as Matt Damon, Jimmy Kimmel and Cee Lo Green.
While so many uberchefs have made their names (and fortunes) pushing the gastronomic envelope, Martorano has staked his claim bringing simple South Philly cooking to the red-gravy-deprived denizens of the Sun Belt. His three Martorano's outlets (at the Rio casino in Las Vegas, and the Hard Rock casinos in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, Fla.) feature dishes the self-taught cook's family shared at his childhood home at 28th and McKean and his grandmother's place at 7th and Fitzwater.
That's the kind of fare he'll focus on Friday evening when he conducts a class at the Viking Cooking School inside Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, and earlier that evening at the first of two VIP bashes at Caesars Atlantic City (the second is Saturday).
At the Viking School session, which is open to the public, the entrée will be vintage South Philly. "I'll be making old-school crabs and macaroni, the way my mother made it," Martorano said in a phone interview.
For the high-roller bash, at which participating chefs and restaurants will offer their wares, Martorano is whipping up hundreds of small plates of meatballs and salad, a signature dish at his eateries.
"It's South Philly-style," he said in a South Philly accent unaffected by two decades in South Florida. "Italian-Americans in South Philly would eat macaroni Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, but we had our meatballs and salad after the macaroni. It was so good, I thought, why can't we do it as an appetizer?"
These are heady times for Martorano, who chose a career in food rather than the family business. His uncle was local mob boss Raymond "Long John" Martorano, whose sensational 2002 murder remains unsolved. His cousin George Martorano is serving life without parole for drug trafficking, a sentence that is being appealed.
In addition to being a celebrity chef with numerous TV appearances ("Real Housewives of Miami," "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"), Martorano is working on an expanded version of his self-published 2011 book, Yo Cuz! My Life, My Food, My Way, which has been optioned by Random House.
The one thing Martorano is unlikely to do is expand his gustatory empire to his home turf.
He reasoned that opening a meatball-and-veal-parmesan joint in his hometown would be a coals-to-Newcastle undertaking. As for Atlantic City, Martorano acknowledged he has received "a couple of offers" from casinos there but admitted he is hesitant to enter the market. "I feel bad for Atlantic City. There's so many casinos … in Pennsylvania," he said. "Doing something [in Atlantic City] would scare me."
Other festival events include:
Dinner Impossible with Chef Robert Irvine, 7 p.m. Friday, Arturo's, Bally's Atlantic City, $85.
Bizarre Brunch with Andrew Zimmern, 10 a.m. Saturday, Atlantic Grille, Caesars Atlantic City, $85.
Buddy "Cake Boss" Valastro, noon Saturday, Viking Cooking School, $149.
Gospel Brunch with Paula Deen, 10 a.m. Sunday, Music Hall, House of Blues at Showboat Atlantic City, $60.
Steve Martorano, Viking Cooking School, Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, 777 Harrah's Blvd., 10 p.m., $79.
For tickets and a complete schedule of events, go to www.caesars.com/acfoodandwine.