not always the maxim, "What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las
Witness the success of Milwaukeean Paul
Bartolotta’s Ristorante di Mare, one of 22 food and beverage
establishments in the fabled Wynn Las Vegas. Bartolotta’s
international reputation has been solidified with the success of his
operations in the glittering Wynn complex, which dominates the Strip.
The resort/casino opened in 2005, featuring 2,716 guest rooms and
suites, with even an opportunity for high-rolling tire kickers to
check out the Ferrari/Maserati dealership off the lobby. The resort
has enough five-diamond and five-star awards to dim the Milky Way.
Bartolotta oversees a staff of nearly
100, whose daily chopping, dicing and slicing could put a Le Cirque
knife-throwing act to shame. Even though he has managers, Bartolotta needs
to be the front man, complementing and supervising their efforts.
"I work a lot," he admits. "Every day varies, but
I’m normally at the restaurant between noon and 1 p.m., and stay
until after midnight up to six days a week. I try to take off Sundays
and some Mondays," he says. During those extended hours,
Bartolotta wears many hats, not just a traditional chef’s
toque. He acts as a coach, food forager, counselor, psychologist,
teacher, menu planner, personnel manager and
marketer. "There are a lot of details to consider in this
business," he says.
Bartolotta got his start when he was
16, working in a Milwaukee pizza parlor. He soon was a pro at
flinging dough and laying down pepperoni and black olives. He climbed
up through a succession of restaurants and food
formats. Capitalizing on what he learned along the way, Bartolotta
was a fresh-faced 24-year-old when he was named chef de cuisine at the
Ristorante San Domenico in Italy and expanded on his culinary resume
in France, training with such top chefs as Paul Bocuse.
then returned to the United States and helped open San Domenico New
York in the 1980s, followed by nine years at Spiaggia in the Windy
City. There, he won the 1994 James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Midwest
award. More and more honors ensued. His successes were
followed by high-profile hotel and restaurant developers out to lure
the best kitchen personalities they could find. In this world, it
definitely helps that Bartolotta spoke fluent Italian and French and
"my Spanish is not half-bad," he says.
Among his suitors was the inimitable
entrepreneur Steve Wynn, who personally pursued the Wisconsinite to
encourage him to come to Las Vegas, flying out to Milwaukee in his
private Boeing 737 and taking Bartolotta back to Nevada. "I
sold him on my seafood concept, even though I hadn’t cooked seafood
much before then," Bartolotta says.
Years afterward, when the restaurant
was a resounding success, Bartolotta told Wynn about his chutzpah of
that time, remembering that Wynn exclaimed, "And I put $25
million into a guy who’s never done this before!" That
bluster was mostly for show because the two partners often share a
bottle of wine to discuss the restaurant and just talk. "He’s a
larger-than-life individual, but I’m not easily intimidated. I’m
as sure of my level as he is about his. We agree that if we get
it right, the money will immediately follow. And it has,"
There’s nothing remotely fishy about
this operation. The Ristorante flies in upwards of a ton of fresh
seafood a week, from spider crabs to delicious Mediterranean blue
lobster. From the 20 fish-crustaceans on his earliest menu,
Bartolotta’s work force now prepares 40 to 50 varieties each
day. "I even have a marine biologist on staff, Jasmine
Tajik, to look over the product," he says. Bartolotta’s
client list ranges from film stars to international moguls, but it
also includes the ordinary vacationing Jakes and Jaynes seeking a
dream getaway in The City That Never Sleeps that includes the meal of
their lifetime. So Bartolotta delivers, emphasizing consistency as his
continual motto. He has never abandoned his regular-guy Milwaukee
roots, knowing that value is just as important as presentation.
"It’s all about anticipation,
knowing that everything is in tiptop shape. It’s never-ending
attention to detail. If something is wrong, everybody jumps on it to
solve the problem. It’s a team effort," he says, praising his
Bartolotta and his family live in
Summerlin, a community adjacent to Las Vegas, where they have a garden
in the backyard for their strawberries, tomatoes, basil, thyme and
other vegetables and herbs. Despite the desert heat, the plot
does well, and provides plenty of freshness to the table.
His Korean-born wife, Robbi, is also a
trained chef who grew up in an adoptive family in Long Island. Her
Italian tuna salad with white beans and arugula was featured recently
on the Food and Wine Web site. The two met when both worked in New
York. "Our first dinner together? I invited her over to
my place. Oh, it was too long ago to remember the meal we
had," Bartolotta laughs.
Their daughter Guilia, 8, is no
stranger to pots and fry pans, either. "We’re into variety,
cooking as a family whenever I’m home. One day, it might be
lamb, another lobster or pasta with meat sauce," Bartolotta
He and Guilia viewed a screening of
"Julie and Julia," a film about the redoubtable chef and
cookbook writer Julia Child, a friend of Bartolotta’s. "After
the movie, she said, ‘Daddy, we should make boeuf bourguignon just
like she did.’"
So Bartolotta pulled out the noted
author’s famed tome featured in the film and Guilia went to work,
down to the mashed potatoes. "It was delicious," bragged the
Guilia speaks and reads Italian
fluently, the result of the past four summers at camp in
Italy. She also enjoys opera and plays the cello. "We try to
give her as many cultural experiences as possible," says
The family regularly returns to
Milwaukee, where Bartolotta is partner in a family restaurant dynasty
that includes the award-winning Lake Park Bistro and
Bacchus. "I bring a fresh eye," he says.
Bartolotta’s dad, Salvatore (T.J.)
was a longtime director of Festa Italiana and a madman in the home
kitchen on Sundays. "We always laughed that he really made a
mess. But the Sicilian food he made was great," says Bartolotta. His
mom, Beverly Kopp, was of Austrian heritage and a marvelous
cook in her own right. Bartolotta is the second sibling of the
clan, following sister Felicia and ahead of Maria and Joe, who is the
principal in the expanding panoply of local Bartolotta restaurant
"Joe and I went our own way as
kids. We’re totally different individuals, but we now make a great
team. He convinced me there was a market here in Milwaukee for
what we wanted to do and it worked. We come at challenges from
different perspectives," he explains.
One point the brothers agree upon
without argument is nurturing young, up-and-coming chefs. "We
work them hard and if they ‘survive,’ we often give them a
restaurant," he says. The two also encourage their staff to
tend to personal and family affairs, attend their kids’ soccer
matches and have a life outside the world of cutlery and
plates. This philosophy helps minimize the turnover, particularly
on the executive level, that plagues much of the culinary world.
Looking ahead to retirement, Italy
looms large on the 48-year-old Bartolotta’s prospective getaway list
because of the halcyon days he spent there early in his
career. He’s about to receive his Italian passport and dual
citizenship. "My needs are simple — family, friends, my next
meal, my health," he says.
In the meantime, he’s interested
in more than preparing a squid. Bartolotta collects antique
furniture and English silver and loves the opera and musical theater.
Agreeing that Vegas is a dynamic city,
he still heads to nearby Los Angeles for his music fix, unlike when it
was easier merely to cross town in New York to the Met or in Chicago
for the Lyric. "Every place is a trade-off," Bartolotta
points out. "Vegas is brutal, New York is gruff, a dog-eat-dog
place," he indicates, despite the cities’ fabulous
entertainment and business opportunities.
Bartolotta continues to travel a great
deal, whether to appear on such cooking shows as the "Iron
Chef" for the Food Network and Wynn Hotel-related activities.
Bartolotta regularly takes one or more of his other chefs with him on
these jaunts, to meet such luminaries as Wolfgang Puck and to expand
their knowledge beyond a stove. "It’s important for them to
meet these kinds of people and see what’s going on out there,"
So what’s the next
challenge? Perhaps a Greek
restaurant? Perhaps? Whatever it is, his foodie followers
will certainly stay tuned to Bartolotta’s menu of delicious options.