Chef Paul Bartolotta is a man known around the world as a master Italian culinary genius. Bartolotta is often singled out for his big personality, fresh fish cooked to perfection, and his signature drizzle of olive oil.
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Raised in Milwaukee, where the staple was ham and Velveeta, he packed octopus salad and an eggplant sandwich, which caused a bit of embarrassment in the second grade. "I came flying in the door and took my coat off," he remembers. "And I had that metal lunch pail, and I put it on top of the radiator and ran into class. At about 11 o'clock the whole hallway was sort of smelling funky. In retrospect, it couldn't have made me prouder. But as a kid it was a little shocking."
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There was always "too much food" at the Bartolotta home, and his friends used to take advantage of the endless buffet.
"Every Saturday afternoon was at my house. All the kids in the neighborhood, whatever season it was, whatever sport we'd be playing we'd come to my house and there'd be a spread of food. There was always too much food. It was like a buffet all the time in my house sometimes a little exotic for my friends. I remember the baby sea snails and the periwinkle didn't do so well."
Bartolotta found his way into the restaurant business by first working as a dishwasher at a small pizzeria in Milwaukee. He graduated to prep cook, pizza cook and then line cook. "I loved the environment. I loved the energy. I loved the excitement, the teamwork of it, and I loved the food I was cooking and then I found another job at another restaurant, a little hamburger pub," he said. "And then I saw an ad for an apprenticeship chef and I went to meet this guy and he told me, 'You know, you should pay me to work in my kitchen.' I was like, 'What are you, nuts? Pay you to go work?'"
Intrigued by the offer, Bartolotta offered to work for free. "I got into the kitchen with him, and for some six months I never cooked a dish," he said. "I prepped all the food he made, and I plated it, so I learned the preparation. I watched the execution, and then I tasted it and plated the finished product. And then one night he stepped off the line and lit a cigarette and said, 'You are cooking tonight.' And I said, 'I have never cooked anything,' and he said, 'You know how to cook it' and I said, 'You know, chef, I don't know how to make this,' and he said, 'You know how to make everything.' And all of a sudden we get the first couple tickets, and I said, 'Come on chef, we've got orders,' and he just pours a cup of coffee, lit up another cigarette and goes, 'I am smoking. I'm not coming in the kitchen, and you better start cooking. These people want to eat.'
Bartolotta's Sicilian heritage didn't just encourage a love of food, he says it also helped make him into the man he is today: an independent, free spirit who is rarely influenced by others.
"There were some Sicilian traditions that were taught by [my grandfather to my father], that my father then taught to me so there's many things he taught me about human nature and about what to expect and how to not be disappointed in life. How to be self-reliant, and all the things that are important in life, kind of getting to know yourself, and knowing your strengths. And working on your weaknesses," Bartolotta said.