By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Apr 17, 2013 at 9:03 AM

It was an ordinary – but very fortunate – day in 1992 when Joe Bartolotta, President of Bartolotta Restaurants, stumbled upon a little restaurant in Wauwatosa that had recently closed its doors. 

Bartolotta, who had been working as the food and beverage director at the Hilton, was looking for a new start. So he called upon his brother Paul, who by that time had spent nine years working at restaurants in Italy and New York, to give him a hand. The plan was for Paul to take charge of the kitchen, and Joe to take care of the management.

"Joe DeRosa of the Chancery put up the money for us," Bartolotta recalls. "I owe the whole company to him, really. He’s a very good man ... good restaurateur."

With DeRosa’s support, the Bartolottas hired a Chicago architect to help them renovate the space.

"We wanted it to be rustic, Italian, northern cooking.  Milwaukee had a lot of Sicilian places, but not a lot of northern cooking," Bartolotta explains. "So when we did a veal marsala… caprese salad, bruschetta, fried calamari, we were the first. None of it existed in Milwaukee."

On March 23, 1993, Ristorante Bartolotta was born.  For three years, DeRosa and the Bartolotta brothers maintained a partnership. 

"He asked me to buy him out," Bartolotta explains. "I didn’t want to insult him by lowballing, but I didn’t want to pay too much either. I wrote down a number on a piece of paper and slid it over to him. He shook his head and said ‘Nope, ain’t gonna do it.’"

Instead, he slid a counter offer across the table. And Bartolotta learned a lesson in business.

"His number was $1 over my number," Bartolotta recollects. "He just wanted to win the negotiation. And that’s how we started."

Ristorante Bartolotta is situated in an historic building built in the 1800s. It boasts 55 seats and has changed very little since it first opened. The tables are arranged in the same way, the same family photos hang on the wall, and the same rustic décor adorns the bar. 

Ristorante Bartolotta garnered four stars in its first – and many subsequent – reviews, received the DiRoNA award from Distinguished Restaurants of North America, and has consistently been named the best Italian restaurant in Milwaukee.

Impressively, over the course of the next 17 years, Bartolotta would open 12 more restaurants and three catering establishments – a French bistro, an Italian-style steakhouse, a sleek stylish restaurant serving New American cuisine, a pizza joint, a seafood restaurant. The list goes on.

In its 20th anniversary year, the Bartolotta restaurants employ over 1,100 Milwaukeeans, including countless renowned chefs, hosts, servers and corporate staff. Spanning a range of concepts and price points, the Bartolotta Restaurants consistently strive to uphold their mission to provide excellence at every turn, from the food to the service to the overall dining experience.

As the Bartolottas celebrate their second decade in the Cream City, we thought it appropriate to sit down with Joe Bartolotta to curate his memories of the last 20 years, and capture his vision for the future. I’d love to start out by talking about your childhood in Wauwatosa. As an Italian family, I’m presuming you grew up with an intimate connection with food.

Joe Bartolotta: We definitely came from an Italian-American family. We’re Sicilian. The Sicilians came to the U.S. with a very specific food tradition – heavy red sauces, meatballs, veal parmigiana.

Every weekend my dad would go to the market on Saturday and he’d buy his sausage, ham, pecorino, great Italian bread from Sciortino’s and he’d always buy the ingredients to make meatballs.

The meatballs were delicious, but the sauce – it was a religious experience. 

He used neck bones, pork ribs … canned tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, chile flakes … and a long, long simmer. The sauce got really thick, as Sicilian sauces tend to be. He’d add sugar if the tomatoes would get too acidic. It was quite a production. 

OMC: Obviously, you were well fed. But, what were you like as a kid?

JB: We grew up in Wauwatosa. I went to Longfellow and Lincoln Elementary School. I wasn’t a great student in school; my brain just wandered a lot. They’d call it ADHD today, but I don’t know what they called it back then. I didn’t thrive in a structured environment.

I saw Paul go to Italy. I ended up bartending and loading trucks at UPS. I had no interest in college, and very little interest in anything. I needed money to pay my rent.

OMC: What was the goal when you opened Ristorante? Did you envision that 20 years down the road you’d own 10 restaurants?

JB: I don’t think I ever thought it would become what it has become. I will tell you that I made a very tough decision about a year into it. I realized that the only thing I had done was to create a job for myself. The restaurant was too small to make any money. I didn’t have money to hire a manager, and I was doing everything myself.

I was able to hire hostesses and bartenders. We had a fully staffed restaurant. But, I did the paperwork, the ordering. I realized I couldn’t even take a day off. We were closed on Sundays, and that was my only time. I realized that I needed to build a company or I would burn out.

OMC: So, how did the next project come along?

JB: I was sitting in Ristorante and the county supervisor came up to me and told me there were a number of properties available. One of them was Coast. Another was a property at Lake Park.

I asked her if I could look at the Lake Park property. The doors were rotted, the windows were rotted, there were raccoons living in it.

It took about 18 months to convince the County to let us move forward. They fought it. We eventually won them over. It cleaned up the park.

We opened a French bistro because we didn’t want to do Italian again. We were comfortable with the cuisine. The food we do at Ristorante is rustic cucina – rustic style indigenous to peasants. The French food was similar to that. We wanted to do simple French cooking of the common people.

OMC: Are there any secrets to your success?

JB: I tell people I made most of my mistakes with someone else’s money. I think that’s fundamentally important in this industry. To go to Kendall College or Johnson and Wales is great. But, to actually roll up your sleeves and do it, that’s priceless.

It’s a really hard business, and a lot of restaurants fail. They have two to three year life spans because customers are fickle. And you need to be a solid performer to survive.

OMC: How would you characterize yourself today?

JB: I guess I’m a creative – a visionary.  I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like fences, boundaries, rules.  But, I’ve compensated by hiring the right people who understand.

OMC: What’s the biggest accomplishment, in your eyes, over the last 20 years?

JB: Again, I guess you have to know me a little bit. I’ve never chased the bottom line. It’s all about the consumer and the experience. When you do that well, the money actually comes easily.

We operate on the notion that the employee is No. 1. Number two is the guests. Number three involves taking care of vendors. And number four is taking care of community. Making money is actually number five.

We have had tremendous longevity with our management team. We have an employee who has been with us for 17 years. In part it’s because what we try to do as a company is create situations where they’re proud to work for us. They’re getting the right training. Things are clean and maintained.

It’s to see 15-16 year employees starting families, experiencing a quality of life. I’ve not only enhanced my life, but that of others. Everyone wins.

OMC: How do you build that culture of longevity?

JB: We hire less than 10 percent of everyone we interview. If we need 100 employees, we interview 1,000-1,200. We’re looking for people with a sparkle. Being good in this business comes from within. Some of the stuff has to come naturally. You have to be good people. 

OMC: What about Milwaukee?  How have you seen the restaurant scene grow and change over the years?

JB: It’s interesting. There has been a tremendous growth in restaurants over the last five to seven years.  Go back 20 years, and there was nothing fresh, nothing new, and a lot of the places were old.

But we were fresh and new. We had a different vibe. People said we felt like we were from another place – Chicago, maybe, or New York.

Right now, there’s this sort of growth of chef/owner operations that tend to be really small. There are some really talented chefs out there who started their careers 20 or 30 years ago and whose apprentices and stages have gained experience and started their own kitchens.

They’re more into the food, and not necessarily the ambience or the experience. They spend very little money – maybe a few thousand dollars and they can open a restaurant. You can make a decent living doing that. I did that at Ristorante. And I think it’s awesome.

It’s really expanded the food scene to a level where even our company needs to stay fresh. It’s challenged us to try to continue to be fresh and exciting. As they push the envelope, we have to do it as well.

OMC: What are the challenges of that sort of market?

JB: There has been a lot more competition. People are so lucky that they have so many choices. But, it’s hard to build a loyal crowd when there are so many places to go. You’re not going to go to the same spot when there are so many new spots to try.

That’s why we’ve created restaurants that are so thematically different. We have a seafood restaurant, a French restaurant, an Italian restaurant. We also built a great rewards program, which has helped our frequency.

OMC: Do you have a personal favorite restaurant?

JB: Ristorante will always be my favorite. There’s something special about the first-born child. My mother always told me – we love all of our kids, but there’s something special about you. Because I was the first born.

OMC: What’s your dream for the next 20 years?

JB: We made a very strategic decision this year. Last year we opened our corporate headquarters and three new restaurants. We’re now focusing inward – on our current restaurants.

You ever play the game Jenga?

OMC: Of course.

JB:  It’s like that. The goal is to pull the blocks out and build them up. But eventually what happens is you weaken the base and the thing tips over.

If you don’t every once in a while visit the structure of the base, you topple. We’re focusing on having enough infrastructure to support our restaurants.

We just spent about $250,000 at Lake Park. We replaced kitchen equipment, put in a new bar, curtains, drapes. That’s what we’re doing this year – reflecting back on what we have and working on keeping it the best it can be.

OMC: What about moving forward?

JB: Going forward, we’re looking at opening a few more operations. We’ve looked into expanding to Madison or Green Bay, maybe the northern suburbs of Illinois. We get a lot of solicitations.

I have a secret dream to own and operate a dinner theater. My father was in theater. He owned and operated a number of great live theaters. Why not do it in one place? That would be on my wish list for things to do. It’s a big project. But, that’s something I’d like to see in the next five years. 

I think we’d probably like to do another catering location. It’s a great business model for us. Maybe grow that business. People don’t want rubber chicken, and it takes a lot of organization and skill to give a quality product for 300-400 people.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.