By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published May 18, 2018 at 6:01 PM

Ristorante Bartolotta, The Bartolotta Restaurants’ flagship restaurant at 7616 W. State St. in Wauwatosa, will be getting a refresh in honor of its 25th anniversary.

To accommodate the improvements – which include a new kitchen and dining room refresh – the restaurant will close beginning Monday, May 21 and reopen in mid-June.

Once it reopens, guests can look forward to not only longtime favorites, but also an expanded menu of new traditional regional specialties from Executive Chef Juan Urbieta.

"As we celebrate this milestone, it seems like the perfect time to shine a light on our first restaurant, where it all began," notes Joe Bartolotta, president and co-owner of The Bartolotta Restaurants. "We are eternally grateful for the support of our guests over the years and express our appreciation through our commitment to fine dining excellence.

"We intend to ensure that Ristorante Bartolotta remains at the forefront of fine dining in this community for the next 25 years. We look forward to welcoming new and regular guests back to fall in love with Ristorante Bartolotta all over again."

How it all began

It was an ordinary (but very fortunate) day in 1992 when 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."

Ristorante Bartolotta garnered four stars in its first – and many subsequent – reviews, received the DiRoNA Award from Distinguished Restaurants of North America and has consistently been named among the best Italian restaurants in Milwaukee.

The history of Ristorante Bartolotta is excerpted from "Milwaukee Food: A History of Cream City Cuisine." 

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

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.