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1993: A Momentous year for food and drink

By JEANETTE HURT
Photo Courtesy of the Bartolotta Restaurants

August 2013

Joe Bartolotta at the then-newly opened Ristorante Bartolotta.

When Joe Bartolotta decided he wanted to open a northern Italian cucina in the Wauwatosa Village, the landlord initially refused him. "He didn’t want an Italian restaurant because he was afraid of the smell of garlic coming up to his offices. I finally won him over, and so we opened," Bartolotta says. "It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing we did."

That "thing" was Ristorante Bartolotta, and back in 1993, most Milwaukeeans had never heard of bruschetta or a Caprese salad. "People used to come in and ask us, ‘Where are the spaghetti and meatballs? Where is the veal parmigiana? Where is the lasagna?’" Bartolotta says. "People were more familiar with Sicilian cooking, and what we opened was the cucina rustica of north-central Italy."

Bartolotta began educating Milwaukeeans about good, simple food, and he’s continued our educations ever since. His second endeavor was Lake Park Bistro in 1996. "If you would have told me 20 years ago that we would have 14 businesses with 1,000 employees, I would have said, ‘No way,’" Bartolotta says.

The Bartolotta restaurant group has expanded and grown, encompassing everything from great custard and burgers at North Point to gastropub cuisine at Rumpus Room to supper clubs at Joey Gerard’s. "The Milwaukee dining scene has really evolved, and it’s gotten quite competitive with a lot of small restaurants opening, and that’s really good," Bartolotta says. "The more educated people are the better restaurants are going to be."

Ristorante Bartolotta has changed through the years; many menu items have come and gone, but some favorites just can’t be removed, including rigatoni con melanzane al sugo di pomodoro, a pasta dish with eggplant, fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. "We’ve tried to take it off a few times but never, ever could do it," Bartolotta says.

While Bartolotta was introducing Milwaukeeans to high-end yet rustic cuisine, across town in a little Riverwest space, Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro quietly opened Fuel Café. Back then, the only destination coffeehouse was a restaurant on Downer called the Coffee Trader, and that was restaurant first, coffee second. At Fuel, Johnson and Montemurro opened a Euro-style coffeehouse, the likes of which had never been seen here before.

Slightly grungy and definitely hip, Fuel was a smoky café, boasting a simple menu of good sandwiches and eats, but the coffee, that was the draw. Two years later, they opened Comet Café. Today their restaurant emporium runs the gamut from wine bars (Balzac) to taco cantinas (BelAir). But the one theme that has factored into each of their endeavors is each place has that cool caché, and each venture fits right into its neighborhood, a feeling of indigenous belonging that not every restaurateur can accomplish. "We really enjoy the business, and being with a lot of young people keeps us fresh," Johnson says. "We really like the art scene, just being with creative people."

In fact their latest venture fits right into its Wauwatosa digs as the second BelAir cantina serves up margaritas and upscale tacos. "When we first opened Fuel I was 26 years old," Johnson says. "At that age, you can’t imagine being 20 years older yet alone what it might become."

When he and Montemurro started they could name and count the number of restaurants that mattered in Milwaukee. "Now, there are restaurants all over the place," Johnson says. "I can drive down the street and see three new restaurants I’ve never heard about before. That’s the kind of city we always wanted Milwaukee to be, and I think that’s pretty cool."

Along with Fuel, three other coffee entrepreneurs started up in 1993, but they went in very different directions. Downtown, there was Steamer’s, a tiny little spot that blasted out a steam of air from the sign every so often. "Back then there were no other choices downtown, and it was really vibrant," says Steve Goretzo, owner of Sven’s Café, which opened its second location in Steamer’s original spot in 2012. "Many different people have operated the café out of that space, and we’re trying to get it back to what it was. There are a lot of positive things happening downtown so we think it’s a great place to be."

In Whitefish Bay Eric Resch and his wife, Melissa, roasted their first batch of coffee and opened Stone Creek Coffee. Today they own 10 stores and supply dozens more with their delicious brews.

In a little kiosk at Bayshore Mall, Ward and Lincoln Fowler and their friend, Paul Miller, started roasting coffee. That little kiosk has grown into the Alterra coffee empire, roasting more than 25,000 pounds of coffee every week with more than a dozen locations. Not just a roaster, Alterra’s got its own, full-scale bakery operation, and it continues to grow. Most recently, Alterra opened a chic new space in Wauwatosa. The Wauwatosa space was designed under the direction of artists Joe and Janice Niedzialkowski in collaboration with Kubala Washatko Architects. "This was an opportunity to create exactly what we wanted opposed to fitting it into an existing space," says Lincoln Fowler.


This story ran in the August 2013 issue of: