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Strip sensation
Famed chef Paul Bartolotta is a leader in Las Vegas Culinary renaissance


January 11, 2010

It’s not always the maxim, "What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas."

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.  

He 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," explains Bartolotta.

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 work force.

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 explains.   

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 proud father.

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 Bartolotta.

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 operations.   

"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," Bartolotta says.

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. M


This story ran in the December 2009 issue of: