It was 27 years ago that brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta opened Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993, the first of what would be many restaurants in the Bartolotta Restaurants portfolio.
The restaurant was one of the game changers for the greater Milwaukee area, introducing diners to Italian fare in a way they had not previously experienced and creating the foundations for a service model that would eventually gain recognition for being among the best in the city.
The restaurant will see yet another first on Wednesday, July 8 when it will re-open its doors to the public after a three month hiatus
Not only will it mark the first re-opening for The Bartolotta Restaurants on the whole, it will cement the first step on the restaurant group’s journey toward a new approach to both dining and customer service.
"As we prepare to reopen, we are grateful for the continued support of our community and our partners," says co-founder and owner Chef Paul Bartolotta. "But most importantly we are thankful for our team members who did not give up on us."
"I’m all about transformation and reinvention," he says. "And so this is a reset moment. We are in a place where we are prepared to fight our way back, to re-earn our customers’ trust and re-communicate our commitment to excellence."
Part of the picture, Bartolotta says, has been to create a model for service that goes above and beyond, creating a safer environment for diners while preserving the quality of the Bartolotta’s experience.
"We have worked tirelessly and exhaustively to meticulously reexamine our service, safety and hygiene standards down to the most precise detail," he says. "And our goal is to deliver an experience that is still fun, while acknowledging and confronting our coexistence with a very real but invisible threat."
A new Italian experience
In turn, those who choose to dine at Ristorante will be treated to a fully reimagined menu experience, a collaboration between Chef Bartolotta and Executive Chef Juan Urbieta, that invites guests to take a "summer tasting tour" of Italy.
"This will be the first summer in probably 35 years that I haven’t been in Italy at this time of the year," says Bartolotta, noting that just last summer Urbieta spent a few weeks there with him and his family.
"More recently, as we reminisced about Italy and the food we had eaten there, I said: ‘Why don’t we recreate some of those dishes? Why don’t we take people to Italy? Let’s take them to Provence, to Normandy… let’s challenge ourselves to think anew, to reinvent ourselves."
The result is a menu that begins with un viaggio (a voyage) to Tuscany through dishes that reflect the season and the Italian approach to dining.
The inaugural summer menu will feature a traditional Tuscan meal for just $59 per person. Guests will be invited to build their own experience by choosing their favorites among a list of antipasti (appetizer), primi (pasta course), secondi (main course), and dolci (dessert).
"It’s our way to take our guests on a journey," Bartolotta explains. "We’ll change the menu to feature a new region every three weeks or so. And guests will be able to experience the beauty and charm of Italian dining without leaving Milwaukee."
Guests will be treated to coastal antipasti like fritto misto di paranza "Costa Versiglia" featuring fried shrimp, scallops and calamari; and rare seasonal finds like insalata di funghi porcini e Parmigiano-Reggiano, a salad with fresh porcini mushrooms and Italian parmesan.
There will be fresh spring primi including tagliolini con piselli e asparagi with thin ribbon pasta, peas, asparagus and mint; and penne alla "Vecchia Bettola di Firenze," a simple dish with penne pasta and tomato cream sauce inspired by Massimo of La Vecchia Bettola, one of Bartolotta's favorite places to dine in Florence.
Among the secondi, guests will find plates like grigliata mista di carne, an Italian mixed grill featuring beef rib-eye, pork ribs, a lamb chop and Italian sausage with garlic-rosemary roasted potatoes; along with fresh, simple summer fish dishes like Branzino al forno con salsa estiva, olive oil baked Mediterranean sea bass with zucchini and tomatoes.
More storied offerings include peposo alla fornacina dell'impruneta (beef shank braised in Chianti with garlic and black peppercorns served with honey roasted tree fruit), a dish the origins of which are said to date back to the Renaissance.
"As the story goes, the dish was created during the period when Filipo Brunelleschi was building the Duomo in Florence for the Medici," says Bartolotta. "In an effort to get the terra cotta tiles he needed more quickly, it’s said that Bunelleschi bribed the kilnsmen in Impruneta with gifts of prized beef shank. They would cut it up in huge chunks and braise it in wine with garlic and peppercorns. The beef would cook slowly overnight in their kilns, and the beef would often be served with baked fruit to cut the pepperiness."
And finally, guests can choose from four dolci: strawberry basil salad with lemon sorbetto; panna cotta with fresh berries, chilled cherries cooked in wine and served with citrus scented ice cream; or olive oil scented chocolate mousse.
"My hope is that we can take you to Tuscana now, and then to Liguria and Puglia, Veneto, Sicilia and Lazio," he says. "And in doing so we can relive that summer in Italy and transport our guests there as well."
Dine al fresco on La Terrazza
Among the notable enhancements at Ristorante Bartolotta is a new courtyard patio, La Terrazza, a relaxed outdoor dining area located astride Pizzeria Piccola that will allow guests to enjoy a safely socially distanced traditional Italian meal in the cooler evening air. The new outdoor seating area, which will complement the restaurant's regular sidewalk patio, was a labor of love.
"We dug and planted every tree ourselves," says Bartolotta. "We did this the way that we started Ristorante, digging holes and pouring gravel and painting. And my wife planted lavender, oregano, bay and mint… so there are beautiful, fragrant Mediterranean herbs everywhere."
"The vision was to create a truly amazing outdoor place where people could feel as if they were dining on the Tuscan countryside," he adds. "And I think we’ve succeeded. In fact, it’s an absolutely perfect place to dine, especially after 8 p.m. Eat a bit later than you might otherwise ... the weather will be perfect, and you’ll be utterly transported."
A safer indoor dining experience
Like the patio, the inside of Ristorante Bartolotta has also been transformed to allow for safer, socially distanced dining.
For instance, barstools have been eliminated from the dining area and custom dividers have been installed between tables to allow for a more private, safer dining experience.
"I designed them myself to fit the restaurant so that they look like they belong," says Bartolotta. "We’ve spent a lot of time considering our options and are moving forward as mindfully as possible. It’s not perfect… that is to say, we are still open and willing to learn; and we will adjust as needed. But we are approaching this with the mindset that if our entire community is working to be better, together we can find a way to better live with the circumstances that we’re in."
In addition, the following safety measures have been put into place:
- Face masks are required for both staff members and guests.
- Reservations are also required (guests must arrive within 15 minutes of their reservation time).
- All guests must undergo a temperature check upon entry.
- QR codes are available so that menus can be viewed online using guests’ smartphones.
- Touchless payment options have been put into place.
- UV-C technology will be used that actively seeks and destroys microorganisms in the air and on hard surfaces.
- Staff will meticulously and deliberately clean tables and hard surfaces between every new reservation.
"I want to show that we care, but I also want to do so in a way that doesn’t detract from the restaurant experience," says Bartolotta of the safety measures put into place. "I wanted it to show that we’ve adapted, but haven’t compromised."
He takes a pause.
"Even a great singer like Pavarotti… when he performs, his voice is amazing, of course. But it isn’t only his voice that makes the performance amazing. It’s the energy he gets from being in front of the audience. The same is true at restaurants. We get our energy from our guests, from the joy of giving them an exceptional experience. Even in these unusual times, we want people to be safe and cared for, but we also want them to be able to relax and enjoy."
Beginning July 8, Ristorante Bartolotta will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Beginning July 11, lunch service – featuring a three-course Italian menu for $49 – will be available from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations are available at bartolottas.com/ristorante-bartolotta.
For more from Bartolotta's, read our recent interview with Chef Paul Bartolotta about COVID-19 and its impact on restaurants.
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.