By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 09, 2009 at 8:19 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

Foodies around town know the Bartolotta name, of course, and Bartolotta chefs like Adam Siegel and Juan Urbieta enjoy pretty high profiles in Milwaukee. But as anyone knows, it takes a village -- or at least a crack staff -- to make a restaurant like Wauwatosa's Ristorante Bartolotta hum on a daily basis.

So, when we met the tall and outgoing Zak Baker recently at the Ristorante, we decided that you ought to know him, too.

Despite his surname, Baker -- who grew up in Door County, lived in Madison and worked in central Italy's Umbria region, too -- isn't the restaurant's pastry chef, but rather its sous chef. That means he's Urbieta's right-hand man and the second in command.

Get Baker talking food and you'd better make yourself comfortable.

OMC: What's your background in the kitchen? Tell us about the path that led you to Ristorante Bartolotta.

ZB: I grew up in the tourist trap Door County, which has always relied heavily on the younger workforce to staff the various inns, shops and attractions that make up the local economy. I wasn't going to clean other people's hotel rooms, so when I was 14 I got a job as a bus boy at a bed and breakfast. I was a horrible bus boy, but the owners must have felt bad and rather than fire me, they demoted me to dishwasher after about a month. Best thing that ever happened to me. I stayed there for six years, a lifetime for someone so young.

I did everything at one point or another. Dishwashing led to being a prep cook, which led to cooking on the line, which led to being the sous chef. I literally held a full-time job through most of high school. The restaurant was a strictly from-scratch kind of place that served breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was my culinary school.

The place went through a couple of not-so-great chefs until they hired Joel Matthews. Joel took me under his wing and showed me what life in a kitchen was like. He was a profound influence on me, even outside of cooking. He was the one who first introduced me to real Italian food. The restaurant wasn't Italian but a lot of what Joel did was undoubtedly influenced by Italian concepts and techniques. He was making risotto when nobody in DC had even heard of it. He was there when I first tried
 prosciutto and when I learned Parmigiano wasn't that canned sawdust they sell in the supermarkets.

After taking a break from cooking to go to school in Madison for music production, I moved to Milwaukee and had my heart set on working in a real Italian ristorante. I asked a friend if there were any good places in the city and he told me about the place where he parked cars as a valet a few nights a week. I asked what they made and he started talking about "paper something and duck." I said, "Pappardelle and duck ragu?" And he said, "Yeah, that's what it was." 

I knew any restaurant serving pappardelle was worth checking out.

The first thing I noticed at Bartolotta's was the wood oven, again, another good sign. The chef was on vacation but I interviewed with the sous chef, Andrew Ruiz, who is now at Bacchus, and said, "I'd love to work here. I'll cook whatever you want, however you want." When I finally met Juan and started to realized how much he knew about Italian food, I went out of my way to tell him I would be there for quite a while. I knew I had found a really great situation working for a great company, a great chef and a great restaurant and I was going to learn a lot.

I've been here going on six years now. I was promoted to sous chef in 2005.

OMC: What is your signature dish?

ZB: To me, the signature dish of Ristorante Bartolotta is without a doubt the pappardelle with duck ragu. It's unique in Milwaukee to the Ristorante. It's something that you can't go too long without eating. It calls to you when you when you get hungry. Most of the time when a guest has a question about how to make something, it's how to make pappardelle with duck ragu. When I meet people and they find out where I work, they almost always start telling me about how much they love the pappardelle.

If there were a close contender, it would be the risotto. Risotto is a religion at Ristorante and we take a great deal of pride in it. There is no set risotto and it changes quite often based on what season we're in or what region we are focusing on. Even when it's not on the menu, people order it or will want it prepared a way they like and we are always happy to make risotto for people. All Italian ristoranti should be judged by their risotto.

OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?

ZB: 

The best part is the food. I've always said you should find something you love, and find a way to make a living doing it. I always loved to eat, which is beginning to show now that I am getting older.

I also love when the guest's expectations are fulfilled, or even better, surpassed. Food is a strange thing in that it is necessary to eat to live on one hand, but food covers a much broader scope when you think about how, what and where people decide to eat. Families bond over food, special occasions are celebrated with food and cultures are identified with what they eat. You feel a certain weight when a couple is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary or when a prom couple is obviously in a nice restaurant for the first time in their lives. People are entrusting you with what will be part of their memories, something they will talk about a long time after the moment has passed.

Honestly, the worst thing is when that doesn't happen for whatever reason. When a guest sends back their food, or worse yet, when you find out after they've left that you've let them down. It kind of makes you sick to your stomach when you've realize you've fallen short of your responsibility. It makes little difference exactly why it happened or what the circumstances were. All you hope is that they give you another chance at some point.

OMC: What's it like working for Juan Urbieta and what's the philosophy in the Ristorante kitchen?

ZB: 

Juan is my maestro, the Italian term for mentor or teacher. I had a great foundation in cooking but it was Juan who took what was all possibility and made it into something actual. Juan showed me what authentic Italian food was. Juan taught me what it was to be passionate about food and where to focus the passion. A lot of accomplished chefs get to where they are by being the loudest yeller, or being the biggest ego in the room. What Juan has done with his staff is inspired them to do the best they can do. The cooks and I do what we do because we feel compelled to do so. No one wants to be the one that lets Juan down. Not because we'll be disciplined or yelled at, but because we'll actually feel bad for letting him down. He teaches people how to take pride in what they do, how to care about what they do.

The philosophy in the Ristorante kitchen is founded on two basic principles. One, flavor is everything. We do what we can to make things look pretty like any fine dining restaurant would, but perfectly plated food with towering garnishes that tastes bland is pointless. We want you to crave the food.
Two, if we are doing a classic Italian dish, we take it very seriously. If we call something "carbonara," it will and must consist of egg, pancetta, pecorino cheese and black pepper. No peas, no smoked bacon, no heavy cream. That doesn't mean pasta with peas, bacon and cream is bad. It's just not carbonara.

We are paying homage to dish that's been around for longer than any of us and if chefs and restaurants continually change it while keeping the name the same, the original dish will be lost for good. A world without real carbonara? No! It must be protected. If we have a wine maker visiting from Piemonte, we do not serve Italian food, we serve Piemontese food. We wouldn't serve a Romana dish like all'Amatriciana or a Milanese dish like risotto with saffron. We serve vitello tonnato or agnolotti del plin.

OMC: What's the one kitchen tool you couldn't do without?

ZB: 

My passion. Passion rings though even when the knives are dull, the electricity goes out and the burners are not powerful enough. Chefs should never be too reliant on any one piece of equipment. We have such amazing technology in kitchens; combi-ovens can cook beef in a vacuum bag at exactly 121 degrees Fahrenheit for six hours resulting in the perfect medium rare. What if that technology ceased to exist or was impractical due the high cost such ovens carry? You better know how to cook that beef to medium rare on boring old fire, or you are not much good in a kitchen.

OMC: What's been the biggest trend or development in food within the last decade?

ZB: The emphasis on great ingredients. This holds true for all styles of cooking, but in Italian food, everything is so simply prepared that the impact good ingredients make is immediate. I've been telling anyone who can stand to listen to me that it's not enough to learn to cook; you need to learn to shop.

Grocery shopping for me is a very involved process, just ask my poor wife. Poke and sniff your fruit. You can't make an unripe peach taste better than the ripe organic peach next to it in the produce isle with some miracle recipe. Read the ingredient list. You'll find that the ice cream with the shorter ingredient list will taste better than the one with something-icerin, stabilizers and gums. Where does the milk come from? The milk from the local dairy farmer that's UN-homogenized and SLOW pasteurized will blow your mind.

OMC: What are your predictions for the next big movement?

ZB: I can tell you what needs to be the next big movement. The restaurant industry, as a whole, needs to take responsibility for their part in the re-greening of our planet. We are now learning about how what we do impacts the environment. I recently read an article that stated the average energy efficiency in a restaurant is under 20%; that's not a great number. What restaurants need to realize is, the benefits are not just limited to the planet but also to the bottom line.

To me, this is where people should be advancing cooking technology. Energy costs are going to continue to rise and anything we can do to minimize our usage is going to save us money in the long run. There will be up-front costs that will be tough to swallow, but quite frankly, we don't really have a choice any longer.

OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out?

ZB: I'm kind of finicky when it comes to restaurants, so the ones I go to regularly are the ones I truly love. Across the street from Ristorante is a new patisserie called Le Reve. I hope they roll out some sort of frequent customer program soon, because I'm there on a daily basis. The pastries remind of the ones in France and the Croque Monsieur might be my favorite thing to eat right now. The chef really knows what he's doing. 
Juan and the cooks and I have an obsession with a restaurant on 32nd and Burnham called El Senorial. They have a mixed grill platter, or "parrillada," that comes to the table sizzling. Everyone gets some of the best refried beans in town, pico de gallo and a stack of warm corn tortillas. If you go on a Sunday morning, it's packed with Mexican immigrant families and there's a parrillada on every table. I figure it's best to get whatever they get.

Some of my other favorites include:
 Lake Park Bistro's county pork pate, 
Kyoto for sushi, Coquette for a burger, Maxie's Southern Comfort for oysters and gumbo, and if I want to be pampered, my wife and I go to Sanford's and each order the chef's tasting menu with a matching wine flight. It takes all the work out of it, all that's left is to enjoy.

OMC: What's your guilty pleasure food?

ZB: I have one not-so-guilty pleasure in Chipolte. They are using natural and hormone-free meat and dairy and it really makes a difference in the final product. It tastes great and I feel like I'm supporting a good business practice. The very guilty pleasure: McGriddles. Now there's some molecular gastronomy. Syrup in the pancake thus facilitating the use of pancakes in place of bread in a sandwich with eggs and sausage? Brilliant.

OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook and a favorite celebrity chef?

ZB: My favorite cookbook for would be "The French Laundry Cookbook" by Thomas Keller, but not for the reason one would think. I've never actually used a recipe. There are stories and anecdotes about what it means to be a chef and the concept of how perfect food doesn't technically exist. But the best story is "The Importance of Rabbits" where Keller explains how if a chef is to cook, serve and consume, he needs to be cognizant of all that went into the life of that rabbit. To understand how wasteful it can be to squander the life of the rabbit by overcooking it or using only the prime parts and disposing of the rest of the carcass.

What I take from it is, if one is to eat meat, they'd best be OK with how it got on their plate and be respectful of it. If you're not OK with the concept that something died for you to live, then you should probably stick to vegetables.

As far as celebrity chefs, I honestly don't have a favorite. I find the longer I cook in restaurants the more I realize that the cooking show / reality TV thing is pretty disconnected from what I do. "Hell's Kitchen" is crazy. I've watched it once and thought, "Great, this is what people think we're like."

And "Top Chef"? Every season it seems the talent pool gets a little smaller and they look for contestants that will provide drama. I mean, this season they had two contestants right out of culinary school. These are top chefs? Trust me, I don't think I could do any better but there are some very, very talented people in this business that have to be more qualified. I know them; I've work with them.

As far as I'm concerned, we give far too much attention to chefs and not nearly enough attention to the farmer and artisans that make the ingredients we use. To me, cheese making is an act of God kind of thing, almost magical. And when I look back on the greatest meals I've ever had, which is a tall order, I realize that the best memories are of the wines.

Working in Umbria at Castello delle Regine was one of the greatest experiences of my life because the restaurant was part of the winery. Almost everything we used came from the estate, from olive oil to Chianina beef, and especially the wines. I felt so tuned in to how much impact wine has on food. Many, many people can cook and cook well. Wine making? Very few people can do this. Even less excel.

My favorite celebrity chef would have to be Herb Eckhouse, who's not a chef, or a celebrity for that matter. He's the man behind La Quercia cured meats, makers of prosciutto, pancetta and many other Italian pork delicacies made from free range, hormone-free pigs. Herb's a Harvard graduate who became obsessed with meat curing when he lived in Italy. When someone eats carbonara at Ristorante, it's amazing for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it's made with Herb's pancetta.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," 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 has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.