Paul Bartolotta's Italian Empire

Red-checked tablecloths be gone; this chef wants to elevate U.S. Italian food.

April 17, 2009— -- 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 inthe 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.

He started cooking with his family when he was 16, and today he and his brother continue the tradition. Paul and his brother Joe have opened five successful Milwaukee restaurants.

Their first, Ristorante Bartolotta, began offering "cucina rustica" in 1993: traditional Italian food made from fresh ingredients. In 1995, the Bartolotta's opened another four-star restaurant called Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro. Three more venues followed, a steakhouse, a pizzeria and a downtown eatery. By this time the Bartolotta brothers had cornered the Italian fine-dining market.

Bartolotta left Wisconsin for Las Vegas in 2004 to be one of only a dozen top chefs at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. His fine dining restaurant, Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, imports 1.5 tons of seafood per week from Italy and offers up to 50 different species of fish nightly.

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Authenticating Italian Cuisine

"My mission as a chef is to elevate the stature of Italian food in this country," he said. "When you are a young chef, you are sort of cooking for yourself. I guess you are cooking to impress everybody. But it's not food you'd probably eat, and I ask chefs, 'Gosh, you must love this dish. How often do you eat this dish?' And they look at you, and they go, 'Well, I developed it. You know I don't think I really ever ate it.' And that blows my mind because I eat my food all the time."

Visit a typical Italian restaurant in the United States and no one would never guess that Italy is the fourth-largest per capita consumer of seafood on the planet. Bartolotta wants to change that by busting stereotypes Americans have come to associate with Italian culture: ubiquitous red sauce and lots of garlic.

"The reason I am doing the restaurant I am doing now [Ristorante di Mare] ... was because I felt that that was an element that was missing in the Italian food landscape in America," he said. "There's all kinds of things I want to do eventually, but they are going to segment the type of food that I think we need as somewhat of a definition of where Italian food needs to go. I think there is missed information about what is truly Italian and the simplicity of the Italian kitchen and the fact that if there's more than two or three main ingredients it's not Italian -- significant things that I think people don't talk about. People think there is garlic everywhere in Italian food. You know Italians, when they make pesto they put it in garlic for an hour or two and then pull it out. They don't want it."

Not Creative, Consistent

Successful as he is, Bartolotta, 47, said he doesn't consider himself creative. He values consistency more than the capacity to combine foods in an innovative way.

"I think of myself as an artisan," he said. "There are chefs out there that every day they are creating a new dish. Well, that's not me. If I do one thing, it is that I've developed a knack for getting down into my food and understanding what is essential what is important, and I am less concerned and maybe it's because I am a bit older."

"I am really not concerned with impressing anybody. I want them to eat a meal and I want it to appeal to their tummy and their brain. I don't want my restaurant to be a cerebral experience. I want it to be an emotional experience." He did impress the James Beard Foundation, however. He's up for the "Best Chef Southwest" award this year. The winners will be announced at the James Beard Awards May 4, 2009. (But he is no stranger to the James Beard Awards -- he won in 1994 for Best Chef Midwest.)

Work-Life Balance

Bartolotta realized he had learned a lot in the past six months, especially when it came to balancing flavors. Time and temperature, he said, equals flavor.

Besides the cooking, Bartolotta says he was also drawn to the teamwork involved in running a restaurant.

"I love balancing art and economics," he said. "I don't think profitability is a four-letter word in the business. I measure myself qualitatively and quantitatively. So if I had 50 chefs in the kitchen doing 10 dinners it would be perfect every single time and no one would make any money. On the other hand, if I am just throwing out sloppy food just to make a lot of money, there's no soul to that. And it's very difficult to run a high-quality rather large restaurant as opposed to a high quality little boutique restaurant. So I have always challenged myself to be in economically viable enterprises, but also restaurants that I put my name on, am proud of, that are part of my soul, [which] is there every single day even a day when I'm off."

He finds it challenging, however, to balance family time and his commitment to work.

"Sometimes you need your wife to rein you in," he said. Echoing his childhood, Bartolotta stays connected to his wife and daughter, making trips to Italy and, of course, sharing good food. One of their traditions is "party eggs," an egg custard with mushrooms and bacon that his mother used to make.

"They are part of my taste memory, and it's something that you eat every Easter and every Christmas and every New Years Day, and I am sure it will be like that for the rest of my life," he said. "I think the table is where I connected with my family. I would much rather spend the time inviting friends over to my home or meeting in a place that's not too noisy where we can meet with a group of friends and order a bunch of food and put it in the center of the table and share it."