March 23 will mark three decades since Ristorante Bartolotta opened on State Street in Wauwatosa, just a few blocks from the childhood home of brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta. The day marked a milestone for Milwaukee's burgeoning restaurant scene.
In commemoration of this day – and the years which have followed – The Bartolotta Restaurants will be kicking off a year-long celebration at its award-winning restaurants.
“Thinking about how far we have come in 30 years, the restaurants that we’ve opened, the incredible talent that we’ve nurtured and made part of our family, I’m both incredibly proud and humbled,” says Chef Paul Bartolotta. “The Bartolotta Restaurants was a vision that I shared with my brother, Joe, to recreate the same family moments and hospitality that we experienced growing up, a concept we call ‘The Bartolotta Table,’ where all are welcome.
“We have spent 30 years celebrating our guests’ milestones and life moments with them, and we have watched as our collective family of dedicated team members has grown beyond our first restaurant in Wauwatosa to the incredible group of people we have working with us today. This anniversary is a testament to the talent and efforts of our team, and the support of this amazing community.”
Guests are invited to celebrate alongside the Bartolotta family on March 24 when Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993 will offer up a special Un Viaggio Nel Pasato “I Classici del Ristorante” menu.
The menu will feature favorite dishes from across the decades, including ravioli di ricotta e spinaci al burro salvia; branzino in acqua passa and the signature tiramisu which the restaurant has proudly served since 1993. Reservations can be made online.
The dinner is the first of numerous events which will be held to celebrate the anniversary. Additional opportunities to revel in the milestone will be announced throughout the year.
How it all began
It was an ordinary (but very fortunate) day in 1992 when Joe Bartolotta, who had been working as the food and beverage director at the Hilton, stumbled on a little restaurant at 7616 W. State St. in Wauwatosa that had recently closed its doors.
Excited by the prospect of opening something of his own there, he called on his brother Paul to give him a hand. The plan was for Paul to take charge of the kitchen and Joe to head up the management. "Joe DeRosa of the Chancery put up the money for us," Joe Bartolotta recalled. "We owe the whole company to him, really. He’s a very good man … a good restaurateur."
With DeRosa’s support, the Bartolottas hired a Chicago architect to help them renovate the space. They also brought in talented Long Island chef Marc Bianchini, whom Paul had taken under his wing at San Domenico NY and who would later carve his own impression on the Milwaukee scene.
"We wanted it to be rustic, Northern Italian cooking. Milwaukee had a lot of Sicilian places but not a lot of Northern cooking," Joe explains. "And Paul had spent the bulk of his time in North and Central Italy. So when we did caprese salad, bruschetta, fried calamari, wood-fired brick oven pizza and handmade pastas, we were the first. None of it existed in Milwaukee."
On March 23, 1993, Ristorante Bartolotta was born. It is situated in a historic building built in the 1800s and boasts 55 seats. The space has changed very little since the restaurant 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.
For three years, DeRosa and the Bartolotta brothers maintained a partnership. "He asked me to buy him out," Joe explained of DeRosa. "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 Joe learned a lesson in business: "His number was one dollar over mine," he recollects. "He just wanted to win the negotiation. And that’s how we started."
– excerpted from "Milwaukee Food: A History of Cream City Cuisine."
The story continues
In the years which have followed, The Bartolotta Restaurants have also taken home a variety of honors, including the DiRoNA Award from Distinguished Restaurants of North America as well as numerous (and consistent) accolades from entities including Wine Spectator.
Joe and Paul Bartolotta were selected as semi-finalists for the James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Restaurateur three years in a row, and in 2020 Paul Bartolotta was nominated as a finalist in the same category. The honor followed in the wake of two previous James Beard wins for his work at Spiaggia in Chicago and Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas.
As they grew, The Bartolottas did not forget about the community which had embraced and supported them. Through programs like Care-a-lotta, they strove to give back by supporting hundreds of local organizations through both monetary support and service.
Following Joe Bartolotta's passing in 2019, Paul Bartolotta became the sole proprietor of The Bartolotta Restaurants. He met various challenges in that capacity, including navigating the company through the pandemic and carrying on the Bartolotta's history of expansion by spearhading new projects including The Commodore – A Bartolotta Restaurant, which is slated to open in 2023.
“When we opened Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993, our goals were simple,” he says. "We wanted to bring good food to Milwaukee, and treat people with genuine hospitality, as if they were joining us in our home.”
“These goals remain the same, and Milwaukee has, in turn, repaid us with loyal support, trust, and love for three decades. We owe any success we have to the people of this great city, and to those who travel here to experience everything we have to offer.”
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.