The sun shone today, even as the news broke of Joe Bartolotta’s passing at the age of 60. It's a fitting memoriam to a man whose vision and optimism permeated the world in which he lived.
One doesn’t need to look far to see the fruits of his career. They are evident in the longevity of the Bartolotta restaurants and in the fleet of expertly trained restaurant staff, many of whom have gone on to share their knowledge with other restaurant and hotel groups, and others who’ve pursued dreams of opening their own restaurants.
Those who knew Joe Bartolotta saw the passion he put towards projects, the time and energy he spent ensuring that every detail came together in a cohesive whole – from the flow of service in the restaurant itself to the feelings conjured by the look and feel of the furniture in the dining room.
A passion for the work
As a food writer, I got to know Bartolotta through his restaurants. But I also had the good fortune of getting to know him as a person, sharing meals and conversation with him at the Chef’s Table at Lake Park Bistro, walking the halls at the Italian Community Center reminiscing about Italian history in Milwaukee, and chatting with him casually about his family, his restaurant projects and his appreciation for life. Few people could tell stories like Joe Bartolotta. And those stories became a part of the fabric in each of the Bartolotta restaurants.
I watched as his passion for restaurant design permeated projects, from the opulent detail work put into the dining room and bar at Rumpus Room in 2011 to his "dream" zinc bar top, decorated with copper rivets, which became part of the Lake Park Bistro refresh in 2013.
More recently, I sat in on multiple meetings during which Joe Bartolotta and his team hashed out details for the proposed restaurants at the Mayfair Collection with Kahler Slater designer Amber MacCracken. And it was this process, maybe more than any, that made me realize how much of Joe Bartolotta is in each and every Bartolotta restaurant.
"I love to build restaurants," he told me on more than one occasion. And he made it exceedingly difficult to believe otherwise.
A generous spirit
But it wasn't just his passion for creating beautiful, memorable restaurants which fueled his career. As his success grew, so did his generosity.
He worked alongside his wife Jennifer, enthusiastically supporting the development of the MPS ProStart culinary arts program. Together they lent support to countless charitable causes, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Meta House, the Wisconsin Humane Society and countless organizations through the work of the Care-a-Lotta Foundation.
He also served on advisory boards and committees for organizations like VISIT Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and MATC, all of which benefited from his years of expertise in the industry.
From there, he simply gave. He gave to near strangers. He gave when no one was looking. He gave as he was blessed, and the world was better for it.
The start of it all
Most indelible, perhaps, in my memories of Joe was the day we sat down to talk about the origins of Ristorante Bartolotta. At the time, I was working on the book, "Milwaukee Food: A History of Cream City Cuisine."
It didn't surprise me in the least that Joe wanted to talk about food. But the vivid manner in which he relayed memories of the Sunday dinners his father would cook for the family was telling.
"Every Saturday, my dad would go to the market," he told me. "And he’d buy his sausage, ham, Pecorino, the ingredients to make meatballs and great Italian bread from Sciortino’s."
"The meatballs were delicious, but the sauce – it was a religious experience," he went on. "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."
Those memories formed the basis for Joe’s lifelong love of food. But they also ignited a passion for hospitality, an industry built on the forging of memories through the experience of food and beverage.
It’s been 26 years and 31 days since Ristorante Bartolotta opened its doors in the Village of Wauwatosa.
The restaurant was a personal endeavor for Joe, who’d spent the previous eight years in New York, where he hungrily took on myriad front-of-the-house positions at venues including Tavern on the Green and Maxwell’s Plum.
"When I moved there, the light went on," Joe told me during a conversation in 2014, "because Milwaukee hadn’t really evolved at that point. And New York was really developing. California had done its spa cuisine. Wolfgang Puck started to kick out some protégés, and things were really moving forward."
He returned to Milwaukee with a wealth of experience. And from there, he searched for a way to make his mark on the city.
Finally the day came. It was 1992 when Joe, who had been working as the food and beverage director at the Hilton, stumbled on a little restaurant at 7616 West State Street in Wauwatosa that had recently closed its doors.
Excited by the prospect of opening something of his own in the space, 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 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.
The restaurant garnered four stars in its first – and many subsequent – reviews, received the DiRoNA Award from Distinguished Restaurants of North America and is still consistently named the best Italian restaurant in Milwaukee.
The restaurant also opened the floodgates for what would soon be a restaurant empire.
Impressively, over the course of the next twenty six years, the Bartolottas would open more than fifteen restaurants and four catering establishments, including Lake Park Bistro (1996); Nonna Bartolotta’s (1998); Mr. B’s Steakhouse (1999); Harbor House (2010); Pizzeria Piccola (2003); Bacchus, a Bartolotta Restaurant (2004); Northpoint Custard (2008-2018); Rumpus Room, a Bartolotta Gastropub (2011); Joey Gerard’s, a Bartolotta Supperclub (2012); and Miss Beverly’s Deluxe Barbeque (2014-2018). That same year, they would also take over operation of Downtown Kitchen, an on-site food court in the U.S. Bank Center on Wisconsin Avenue, and in 2016, they would assume management of the cafeteria design and operations for Kohls Corporate. They would design and manage three restaurants at the Mayfair Collection, and assume catering operations at the Italian Community Center. In 2019, the Bartolotta Restaurant Group would announce plans to renovate the McKinley Marina Roundhouse.
Along the way, these restaurants – fueled by the work of Joe and Paul Bartolotta, along with their team – would provide a training ground for some of Milwaukee’s best chefs and front-of-house personnel. They would also establish a reputation for impeccable hospitality and consistent, spot-on cuisine, laying the groundwork and numerous benchmarks for the chef-owned restaurants that now form the bulk of Milwaukee’s restaurant landscape.
In thinking back on years of interviews with Joe Bartolotta, I recall numerous occasions when we talked about the art of training great service personnel. Bartolotta was insistent that, although things like timing and procedures could be taught, a good portion of the talent needed to come from something deep inside.
"We're looking for people with a sparkle," he said to me. "Being good in this business comes from within. You have to be good people."
Yes, indeed, Joe. Yes, indeed.
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.