By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 17, 2009 at 4:07 PM

Mitchell International Airport has long had a taste of Milwaukee in its concourse, with a Renaissance Bookshop and a Usinger's sausage eatery in the food court. But thanks to SSP's partnerships with the Bartolotta Restaurant Group and Alterra Coffee, the airport is more "Milwaukee" than ever.

Three former Starbucks kiosk locations are now Alterra Coffee locations and a former gate in Concourse D is now home to Nonna Bartolotta's, a hybrid restaurant based on a couple different Bartolotta's restaurant concepts.

The restaurant -- the first of two that Bartolotta will create with SSP America at Mitchell -- opened in February. Lotta Burgers -- a hamburger and custard eatery -- will open later this year on the main concourse.

SSP America operates in more than 42 airports and motorways across the USA, Canada and the Caribbean and often partners with local brands for its restaurants. It also owns a Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. at Madison's airport.

"We don't own the restaurant," says Bartolotta Restaurant Group General Manager John Wise. "It belongs to SSP, they put in all the money. It's sort of like a franchise agreement. We get a percentage of the sales. We helped with the design. These are Joe's grandparents on the wall."

The menu at Nonna Bartolotta's was created by Ristorante Bartolotta Head Chef Juan Urbieta and former Ristorante employee Drew Baker was hired by SSP to helm the kitchen at the airport restaurant.

"This is kind of like a combination of Ristorante and Pizzeria Piccola," says Wise. "It was Joe (Bartolotta's) idea. Nonna's came because we had a Nonna's out in Brookfield; that's what it was before it was Mr. B's. They wanted a pizza pasta thing and Nonna's just kind of came to us."

With a range of appetizers, pizzas, pastas and entrees that will look familiar to those who have dined at Bartolotta restaurants, Nonna Bartolotta's has a more casual feel that resembles Pizzeria Piccola with table service and expanded dining options.

The banquettes are in view of the open kitchen, there is a bar - complete with TVs and computer hookups -- at one end and a grab ‘n' go panini, salad, beverage and gelato station anchoring the opposite end. Monitors allow patrons to keep an eye on departing flights.

Considering the dearth of quality eateries at Mitchell International, it's no surprise that Wise says Nonna's has been greeting with enthusiasm by regular flyers, airport employees and others.

"We get a lot of airport employees," says Wise, nodding to a nearby table. "There's the director of the airport right over there. They come in and eat a lot. On any given day there's a couple of flight crews, you see a lot of military people.

"Then there are a lot of regular flyers. Russ Feingold eats breakfast here every Monday when he flies back to Washington DC. Danny Gokey from "American Idol," every time he flies back and forth he eats here. It's nice to see that."

The restaurant opens for breakfast at 7 a.m. serving a range of frittatas and breakfast pizzas, including a smoked salmon pizza. It closes ½ hour after the last flight.

Wise says business has been growing and that as travelers realize that their boarding pass allows them access to all concourses - not only the one they're flying in or out of - business will improve even more. But the restaurant also needs to overcome changes at the airlines; changes which are beyond the control of SSP and Bartolotta.

"When the initial deal was cut over a year ago this was the busiest terminal in the airport," says Wise. "It's not anymore. It seems that whenever Midwest closes down a flight Air Train adds 10. Right now the C terminal is the hot terminal. But it's still a slow time of year. Summer is the busy travel season. We've seen our business go up. We wish maybe we were in C, we wish maybe all the terminals were connected. ... It'll take time. People will talk and realize (we're here), eventually."

Although the restaurant is owned by SSP, Wise says Bartolotta takes the deal seriously. Not only because it could lead to further partnerships with SSP, but because owner Joe Bartolotta guards his family name carefully.

"There's not much that Joe cares about more than his reputation," says Wise. "This was not a slam-dunk decision. (Like) ‘It's not very hard, let's sit back and make money.' It was never that. Joe has always cared more about his reputation than how much money he had in the bank.

"But I think that we'd love to see this relationship grow. The initial deal was for two restaurants here. There's talk that maybe there will even be more here. There's talk we may even be involved in some airports of this one."

And, according to Wise, there is reason to believe that talk.

"We've been dealing with SSP vice presidents and they feel that this is one of the top restaurants they have anywhere. They're very excited about this restaurant, this execution, and we've been good partners with them. It's been a good relationship so far."

Says SSP America’s Senior Vice President of Business Development Pat Murray: "With their intense passion and commitment to success, The Bartolotta Restaurant Group has achieved the pinnacle of success in Milwaukee, and has led to the fantastic creation of Nonna Bartolotta’s at General Mitchell International Airport.

"The travel industry continues to evolve with consumers demanding an authentic dining experience, which combines ‘real food’ and hospitality in airports.  SSP’s partnership with The Bartolotta Restaurant Group helps us deliver both, plus adds exciting new dimensions to our skills and knowledge of Italian and local foods."

In the meantime, Bartolotta is focusing on opening a pair of burger places this year. In addition to Lotta Burgers at the airport, the company is preparing to open North Point Burgers and Custard in the old North Point Snack Bar just south of Bradford Beach.

"We're gonna end up opening three places (this year)," says Wise. "And I'd rather be opening than closing. It's during the bad economy that good deals are cut. Who knows by the end of the year maybe we'll do something else."

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