By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 02, 2007 at 5:36 AM

We are all familiar with the major restaurateurs in Milwaukee, from Bianchini to Vassallo and beyond, but we’re only really starting to get acquainted with the men and women that keep their kitchens running and create their menus.

Juan Urbieta, who helms the kitchens at Ristorante Bartolotta and Pizzeria Piccola has been key to the success of those Wauwatosa restaurants for nearly a decade.

Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Urbieta came to the United States in 1993 to work as a prep cook at Zipangu Japanese restaurant by day and as a grill cook at Rosie’s BBQ and Grill at night.

After moving around a bit, Urbieta finally landed his dream job working for Paul Bartolotta at Spiaggia in Chicago. The rest, as they say, is history. Bartolotta sent him to work under Chef Valentino Marcattilii at Imola’s San Domenico restaurant and in 1998 Urbieta began working at Ristorante Bartolotta.

We asked him to tell us his story for this Milwaukee Talks, but we also talked about the restaurant scene in Milwaukee and gave him a list of questions that we also posed to other area chefs for OnMilwaukee.com’s Dining Month.
 
OMC: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to the kitchen? Did you know you always wanted to do it?

JU: I actually always wanted to be a commercial airline pilot, as my dad worked for an airline for 33 years and retired from there, and I grew up in that environment of airplanes, airports and things of the sort. I was turned down by the Mexican Air Force -- we actually have one -- because of a minor surgery I had undergone while I was 2 or 3 years old, and they don’t accept anyone with any surgeries of any kind.

At that point I made my move to Los Angeles where my brother was living at the time and started working in restaurants as a dishwasher. I always enjoyed the cooking of my mother and grandma, helping out and watching, but never realized how much I loved cooking until I started working in restaurants. I knew I liked cooking, but not to the point of making it my career.

It was only then that I decided I wanted to be chef. With that in mind I became very focused in learning and started working my way up the ranks to prep cook, saucier, line cook, sous, etc. and moved from city to city in the process like Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago (and to) Italy.

OMC: Is there someone in particular that really encouraged you along the way or maybe someone you looked up to that you wanted to emulate?

JU: Oddly enough, early inspiration came from a negative source. There were a couple of guys who liked to taunt me when I was only a dishwasher, they used to tell me that “they were really good line cooks” and I was only a dishwasher, and that, it was always going to be like that, that I was never going to move up, and they used to toss a salad or a pasta in a sauté pan in a fancy way in front of me to make their point.

Back then, at 17 years old, I promised myself that I was going to prove them wrong. On the positive side, my mentor Paul Bartolotta in Chicago was always the guy I always looked up to. I must have applied at Spiaggia in Chicago eight or 10 times before I got a job with him. That’s how much I wanted to work for him.

OMC: How do you keep the menu at a place like Ristorante Bartolotta interesting and fresh without changing it so much that you alienate the regulars who have come to expect certain dishes? Is it difficult?

JU: At first it was very difficult. In my first few years here, Joe (Bartolotta) didn’t want me to change a thing, because he knew people had their favorite things on our menu. Then, with time I was able to prove to him by introducing many, many specials with different ingredients and authentic preparations that, our guests were ready for a change.

I believed Milwaukee had seen enough bruschetta and caprese salads in restaurants. So nowadays, a third of our menu is fully seasonal; we change our menu at least once a month. And you can find more unique ingredients being used in our specials like mullet or tuna bottarga, items with cuttlefish ink, fregola pasta, semolina gnocchi, white and black truffles, etc.

And the response had been almost overwhelming. I thought some people were going to be more adventurous and order a few of these things, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see such an excitement to these specials. Nowadays, the ravioli, chicken, salmon and rigatoni dishes on our menu are not the most popular menu items anymore like they used to be, not even close.

I’m happy that Joe believes in what we are doing at the restaurant and he’s very excited as well, to the point he and his wife Jennifer and the rest of their family come in and eat here very often; that’s got to be a good sign. I think that with humbleness, passion and love for what we do; we can be a good restaurant to provide a good dining experience for our beloved guests; that’s our goal.

OMC: Some have said that the number of fine dining places has grown more quickly than the pool of available talent when it comes to wait staff. Do you think this is true? Is it also true in the kitchen -- has it been harder in the past few years to find good sous chefs, prep cooks, etc.? Is it changing?

JU: It has always been hard to find good, qualified people since I’ve been here both in the front and back of the house. As far as the kitchen goes, I wish we had a couple more cooking schools with more students wanting to work at a good restaurant. When I say good people I mean good as in attitude. That to me is the most important thing.

I don’t look for someone with 10, 20 or 30 years of experience. I fact, a lot of times that’s worse because people with many years of experience are harder to mold to what you want them to do. Therefore I totally prefer the young, eager and quiet kid with little or no experience but the right kind of attitude to learn and listen. There’s a fierce battle among restaurants to get these types of kids.

As far as front of house I believe there are a lot of people with lots of potential out there, problem is, to them it is just a job, they don’t take it seriously, and that’s what makes them be “not so great” a lot of times. But I’ve also worked with very smart, talented wait staff. So, the potential is definitely there but the attitude toward waiting tables has to change. Maybe not to the point of making it a career as in Europe but definitely taking it more seriously.

In Europe, servers are semi-sommeliers; they know a lot about their wines and can comfortably walk you through their wine book. A chef is seen at the level of a doctor or a lawyer. That’s the other extreme, I’m not saying let’s be like them, but if we are to truly become a world class-type dining destination, we’ve got to take things more seriously, there’s got to be a middle point between what we do now and what they do in Europe.

The worst I’ve seen is when people go to school to do something else in life while working a part-time job at a restaurant and they don’t take it seriously, because it’s “just a job.” In my mind, I don’t care if you are going to school to be a rocket scientist, if you work here even one day a month, you ought to be responsible and do the best that you can during your shift.

OMC: Is there something missing in the Milwaukee dining scene? Some type of cuisine or style that you think is on its way here or should be on its way here?

JU: There could be a few things missing in Milwaukee but mostly we’re doing fairly well as far as variety of world cuisine. There’s always room for improvement, but we should be proud of our city in that respect. But we all need to get more serious at what we do; try to be more authentic.

For example if you go to a Greek restaurant, all of a sudden their “house” salad would have mozzarella or an Italian restaurant with a Feta cheese salad. Or someone tries to write their menu in French and it’s badly misspelled and they switch titles in menu items between English and French with no rationale, maybe simply because they didn’t take the time to find out how you say “this or that” in French. Those things turn me off.  We could use some Argentinean churrasco as well. People need to know that churrasco is a traditional Gaucho country feast in Argentina and Uruguay, NOT as much Brazil like we all think.

OMC:  OK, here are some questions we're asking a number of chefs during dining month. What's your experience and training background?

JU: No formal training (at) cooking school. I've worked in L.A. also in Denver with Vince Tyler who came from Carlucci’s in Chicago, Charlie Trotter, Jean Joho, Paul Bartolotta in Chicago and Valentino Marcattilii in Italy.

OMC: Do you have a signature dish?

JU: Semolina gnocchetti with crab, shrimp and tarragon and hand-made spaghetti with spiny lobster.

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

JU: Most, I love cooking and thinking about what else is different that we can serve to our guests. (Least,) not being able to spend more time with the family.

OMC: What are you favorite places to eat out (in Milwaukee, the U.S. and beyond?

JU: In Milwaukee El Senorial on Burnham and 32nd. In the world anywhere in my hometown of Oaxaca but especially at home or a place called El Tule with rustic local cuisine. Also a trattoria called “Da Gastone” in a tiny town in Romagna called Casalfiumanense. We used to go there on our days off for hand-made pasta and grilled meats.

OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?

JU: The culinaria series of European cuisines.

OMC: Do you have a favorite TV chef?

JU: I like Rick Bayless on PBS, otherwise I like cooking demos on RAI Italian TV (carried on Time Warner cable in Milwaukee).

OMC: The biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?

JU: I guess the chemistry-like tasting menus, but I like more simple traditional meals.

OMC: Which kitchen utensil can’t you live without?

JU: A very sharp chef’s knife, it’s the tool I use the most so if it’s sharp I makes my life much easier.

OMC: What’s the next big trend in food?

JU: Authenticity, Spanish, South American cuisines.

OMC: What’s the toughest day/night to work in the restaurant biz?

JU: Holidays such as Mother’s Day, Valentine’s, Easter, etc. I wouldn’t eat out those days even if I could. On the other hand I think New Year ’s Eve is fun. 

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.