March 12-18 is Milwaukee in Las Vegas Week on OnMilwaukee.com. Last month, Funjet Vacations sent our editorial team to Vegas, where we sought out connections between Brew City and Sin City. These are our stories …
LAS VEGAS -- It's no secret that Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn Las Vegas is a heralded restaurant. After all, Esquire dubbed it the best new restaurant in America in 2005, and The New York Times has called it a "Treasure of the Desert."
The mostly, but not entirely, seafood-focused eatery -- run by Milwaukee native Paul Bartolotta -- has hooked an ocean of awards and praise. But walking up to the entrance, we come face to face with what might be the best endorsement there is: an unmistakable imprimatur. Sitting at the bar in his trademark orange clogs is superstar chef Mario Batali.
Although he stands tall, hangs with fellow big boys like Batali and looks every bit the proud restaurateur, Joe Bartolotta says his brother isn't in it for the fame.
"Paul has had the opportunities to do a lot of that stuff, but he's not in it for the merchandising. He really believes in what he does. I can't see him putting his name on a line of cookware. He's passionate about food and about Italy."
Asked about the success of the restaurant, Paul Bartolotta himself is quick to give credit to casino magnate Steve Wynn for allowing the Ristorante not just to exist, but to flourish.
"He built me this amazing space," says Bartolotta, gesturing up toward the restaurant's upper level. "First he said, 'I want it to be great. I want what no one else has. I want to be different. But I want to be the best.' And then he said, 'And if you can make us a few shekels in the process, that's a good thing.' But really, he didn't start with, 'I want to make money.' He said, 'I want to do something special. I want it to be great. I want to be a solid amenity to this property.' Then from the process he wants to make money and so do I."
And with a bustling dining service even on a Monday night when wait staff at many near-empty eateries nearby are standing around gossiping, it looks like Wynn and his Ristorante partner are doing OK for themselves.
"Every night is Saturday here; we're always busy," Bartolotta says. "And the caliber of clientele that comes in here is incredible. So what has happened is ... I hear people, oh it's nice to see a Milwaukeean go big or something, you know, that's kind of the comment I get a lot of and they're very proud to see a local name in the esplanade with ‘Steve Wynn' on the building. So, it's a big deal. It's a big deal for me, but it was a huge deal for my dad (T.J., who recently passed away)."
From the Wynn lobby, Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare appears as a modern, more casual recast of the stately cafes and restaurants in Turin, Paris and Vienna. A bar is at the left, tables to the right and between them a staircase spiraling downward to the main dining room.
While you don't need a dapper suit to dine at Ristorante di Mare, remember that you're in the Wynn, which even in glittering Vegas, stands out as a symbol of an elegance and class rarely seen today in the Disney-fied Vegas of The Venetian, Excalibur and New York New York.
The Ristorante has exactly the kind of well-trained and attentive staff you'd expect. But there is hardly a trace of iciness and by the time you leave, if you've made even the slightest effort, you'll have engaged in interesting conversation with the sommelier, the waiter and most everyone else attending to your table.
Bartolotta himself maintains a heavy presence in the dining room, calling customers by name; stopping to chat and make sure everything is running smoothly. All with a booming voice, and a pat-on-the-back demeanor.
He gestures to a staffer, requesting new tablecloths to replace wrinkled ones on expectant tables. He shares his intimate knowledge of the day's seafood offerings with customers and he runs the place with an apparent ease. No easy feat at a place that even on a Monday or Tuesday night is packed to the gills.
The Bartolotta secret
The secret to this success reveals itself as no real secret at all when the food arrives. The recommended approach to sampling the culinary delights here is to select one of the two prix-fixe tasting menus.
On a recent visit, we experienced just such a feast of superb seafood buoyed by an ocean of Vietti Barbera d'Alba, Roero Arneis, Campanian Greco di Tufo and a sweet Piemontese Moscato with dessert. (Ristorante di Mare also has a selection of non-seafood entrees, with veal, beef, lamb and the rarer faraona … guinea hen.)
An array of delectable appetizers opens the show, bringing with it halved and grilled langostini (small lobsters), fried soft shell Adriatic "moleche" crabs the size of silver dollars, sautéed clams in a delightfully spicy tomato sauce, baked blade fish and seared scallops with porcini, to name but a few of the tantalizing starters.
After the first course -- the pastas -- are finished, the non-Italians at table seem to think the meal is nearly complete. That's because we've just feasted on meat filled agnolotti del plin in sage butter, cheese-filled ravioli, cheese and vegetable-laced risotto and more.
But those are merely the opening salvos, leading up to the whole sea bream, expertly portioned tableside by the wait staff, under Bartolotta's personal supervision. The fish -- flaky and delicious and lightly dressed with capers, white wine, Ligurian taggiasca olives and pomino tomatoes -- won over even non-fish fans in the party.
A sampling of the array of desserts shows that Bartolotta has taken nothing for granted. See the menu sidebar for complete details of what a Ristorante di Mare feast -- undoubtedly the kind of meal that memories are made of -- comprises.
Milwaukeeans seek out hometown boy
After dinner, Bartolotta beams when he says that Milwaukee visitors to Vegas make up a noticeable part of his eager clientele. "Most importantly, I've cooked in Milwaukee"
Ask Paul Bartolotta if his Ristorante di Mare concept might translate back to Milwaukee, and he's philosophical.
"The real story is you have no idea how many Milwaukeeans come to my restaurant. It is mind-boggling. You ask my staff. The people from Milwaukee, are like, ‘Yeah yeah, we're in your restaurants all the time.' People come in with the preferred card (valid, in case you're wondering, only at the Milwaukee restaurants)."
Experiencing dinner at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare really does Milwaukee proud. Even if Bartolotta hasn't lived here since he was 18 – he's 45 now and has worked for years in Chicago, Italy, France, Vegas and beyond – Milwaukee is still home and he is still an active, if mostly off-site, partner in the Bartolotta Restaurants group with his brother Joe.
He speaks enthusiastically -- and with remarkably up-to-the-minute knowledge, considering he's got one of Vegas' top restaurants on his plate -- of Milwaukee and its dining scene.
"I opened every one of them. The menus are mine," he says. But he credits his brother Joe with having the foresight to divine that Milwaukee was ready for a family of restaurants like Bacchus, Lake Park Bistro and Ristorante Bartolotta (the group also includes Mr. B's Steakhouse, Pizzeria Piccola and a catering enterprise).
"We've seen the dining community evolve in Milwaukee," Bartolotta muses. "I would have had less confidence (than Joe) that the market was there. In reality, it was his vision, it was his belief in the market and it was his knowing and having the experience as a restaurateur to say we can do this.
"I remember when he first asked me to do a restaurant, he said, ‘Come help me do this restaurant in Milwaukee' and I looked at him like, ‘Are you nuts?' And he said, 'No, Paul, really, they're starving for something.' And I said, 'Joe, if they were starving, it would have already been done.' (He said,) ‘I'm telling you.' And then a couple weeks later he called me and said, 'Listen, I found a spot and I really think we should do a restaurant … trust me. Will you help me?'"
Bartolotta has developed a broad perspective, thanks to his travels and work outside Milwaukee, and he believes the combination of that experience with Joe's intimate knowledge of the Milwaukee scene and ability to tap into the palate of the Milwaukee diner, has been key to the success of the brothers' Brew City restaurants.
"He's the principal in the business, and I'm a minority owner in the business. And the reality is we get along extremely well because I'm vested because it's my family, I'm vested because it's my brother, I'm vested because it's my business. But I can be that sort of one step out to not take everything so personal. So, when I'm critical my brother gets very defensive but then he'll walk back and say, ‘I can see now what he's saying.' I think that has served us well. Because there are times he would have done something I would not have done or that I would pushed for something that he would not have done and we've taken our lumps, we've made our mistakes, but all in all, I think, he's pretty remarkable, I'm very proud of him."
"He brings a very different perspective to how we run our business," says Joe from his Wauwatosa office. "He's worked in very large operations and he's really learned a lot about the business of restaurants. He has a tremendous amount of passion. I'm really lucky to have a brother like him."
Joe adds that unlike many absent partners, Paul is deeply in touch with the Milwaukee restaurants.
"We talk at least three to four times a week and he sits in our directors meeting every week, by phone, and he has fresh eyes. It's really helpful and he's incredibly passionate about the food and we have standards here that Paul has infused in all of us, especially when it comes to the raw materials."
"The key thing is to never think that Las Vegas is going to translate back to Milwaukee. (To) that I would say no. We have to be very careful in Milwaukee there's a relatively finite pie. We have 43 million people come through Vegas a year. In addition, I'm in what I believe to be the most important property in Las Vegas, and while Steve did a phenomenal job at Bellagio and loves it I think that there has been a whole group of people that has followed Steve Wynn from there to here. There's no question."
But it's easy to point to things like Bacchus' recent truffle dinner, which by all accounts was a remarkable success in a town with a reputation for a clawing grip on its pocketbook. That prix fixe menu clocked in at $350 per person.
"How about that," Bartolotta says with a grin. "People went nuts. Do you know how many people have come in that were at that dinner? We're doing some really remarkable stuff (in Milwaukee)."
Remarkable indeed, but the Bartolottas know -- thanks to hard won experience -- that it is possible to push Milwaukee a little too far, a little too fast.
"I think that my brother and I and our chefs, I like to think of us as savvy enough people to always be kind of one step ahead of the curve but not losing people in the process. And we have made our mistakes by going too far out there. And I tell everybody, ‘I've cooked in Italy, I've cooked in France, I've cooked in New York, I've cooked in Chicago, but most importantly I've cooked in Milwaukee.' And I say that and I mean it in the right way because Milwaukee is a challenging market where value is very important but quality is also very important, too.
"So, it's not as thought they're all looking to not spend money, they're looking for quality and they want a relationship for that. So, what we have to be careful of us is to have some items on our menu that challenge the foodie but have enough items for the more common denominator because we want to be an everyday restaurant and we think that our restaurant designs are not intended to be intimidating. We want our restaurants to not feel stuffy. We want our restaurants to be engaging."
Talking about the Vegas restaurant, Joe Bartolotta points to a key difference between, say, Lake Park Bistro and a restaurant in the Wynn.
"Paul can turn a table three or four times a night, due to density, due to tourism. He gets a pre-theater rush, two more waves and a late-night rush," Joe points out. "We fill up every night but we fill up only once."
But there are some concepts that seem to work well in Milwaukee and Vegas. Like the Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa, for example, Ristorante di Mare is elegant, but casual. Some are smartly dressed, some are done up to the nines. The lighting isn't harsh, but it's not excessively dark, either. Paul Bartolotta agrees immediately that there is overlap.
"You can see I did the same thing here (as in the Milwaukee restaurants). I could have made this more boutique-y (but) I didn't want that. And I think that we've seen that by and large people have gone away from that ultra-luxurious stuffiness. We are in a casualizing world but let's not mistake professionalism from sloppy service, let's not mistake beautiful environments with a more relaxed sensibility about them rather than stuffy and haughty.
"I think my brother was very in tune with that and he understood that about Milwaukee right away and so when I was writing this really creative menu, he'd be like, ‘OK Paul, that's great, let's put this and this because I think that that's cool and no one's ever seen it here, but you know you can't go too far.' So, he was always my sounding board. I was pushing the envelope and he knew his market because he lives it every day and I think the combination has always kept two different realities working for a common good but with very different perspectives."
"Most importantly, I've cooked in Milwaukee"
Ask Paul Bartolotta if his Ristorante di Mare concept might translate back to Milwaukee, and he's philosophical.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.