By Megan Rowe
What a Catch: Steve Wynn managed to lure Paul Bartolotta and his authentic Italian sensibilities to the resort's celebrity chef stable.
Paul Bartolotta once steeped himself in Italian cuisine and culture, spending years in Italy working in restaurants honing his talents to turn out the real deal—which he did, quite remarkably, placing Chicago's Spiaggia on the national map in the 1990s. Putting Spiaggia behind him, Bartolotta started out this decade working with his brother, Joe, to develop four trattoria-style Italian restaurants in Milwaukee. Last year, casino magnate Steve Wynn approached him about opening a signature restaurant at the new Mediterranean-themed Wynn Las Vegas resort; the conversation led to Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare. The elegant sun-splashed space provides an apt backdrop for a regional Italian menu that spotlights, as the name suggests, seafood.
Unlike many celebrity chefs in Las Vegas, Bartolotta actually lives there, but he still travels— to Milwaukee for meetings about the family restaurant group, to Chicago, where he still has a condo, and to Italy. RH's Megan Rowe recently caught up with the chef.
RH: What do you do when you visit Italy these days?
Bartolotta: I like to continue to expand on the relationships I've made with many of the fish suppliers for the restaurant. It's very impersonal if you meet someone over the phone—you don't cultivate a human relationship. Also, I want to have them become equally invested in pride—so they're proud to hear about the feedback on my fish, and they pass that on to the people who fish—then they'll feel good and give us the best.
RH: What happened when you left Spiaggia?
Bartolotta: In 2000, I had received four stars at Spiaggia, I had already received the James Beard Award and had already met the goals I had set out to achieve. My long-term goal has always been to elevate the stature of Italian food, and I think you do that by being professional at what you do and using your technical training to elevate the kitchen without it losing its soul. I wanted to go back to New York and challenge the French establishment, then 9/11 happened. Meanwhile, my brother and I had signed a contract to manage the foodservice at an Indian casino in Wisconsin. Also, more importantly, my wife and I had a baby in 2001. I had worked for the last 25 years six and seven days a week, and I wanted to enjoy the first couple of years of my daughter growing up.
RH: So how did you end up in Las Vegas?
Bartolotta: Initially I was asked to create a restaurant at the MGM Grand. Essentially, I had a fully negotiated deal ready to be signed, but I told (MGM Grand's president) Gamal Aziz I was not the right person for what he wanted to do—not because I couldn't do what he wanted, but because long-term it wasn't right for me. I would not be happy. They wanted a hip, trendy restaurant—really, a big box restaurant. It would be a different audience than I would be cooking for normally. I think Wynn had heard that I had said no, and they called. I had no interest in moving to Las Vegas but I said to myself "Las Vegas is changing," and I had a number of long conversations with Steve Wynn, and I saw we had a shared vision. He understood the direction I wanted it to go; he said initially he was a little skeptical about doing the seafood concept. His concern was that people hadn't fully graduated and were still into that hip and trendy Italian rather than authentic Italian. And he was concerned that it would alienate the nonseafood Italian diners. So we did a menu that's about 50 percent Italian seafood; the other half is not seafood.
RH: And how has the public responded?
Bartolotta: I think very well. Steve and I both decided that the only way you know if something new and different will work is to have the guts to go and try it. We found the Europeans totally get the fish concept because it wasn't foreign, as do South Americans and Latins. People come here for an experience, so if you're a well-traveled consumer—which the lion's share of these guests are—this is not a stretch. It reminds them of when they were in Italy, and they get it and are extremely excited to find this in the middle of the desert. For those who are not experienced, we deliver this incredible tray of fish, and servers— who are mostly Italian—explain how their mother did it this way...they get guests to understand this is extremely normal. My service staff has done such an incredible job at being themselves that they've really been the silent heroes of the business.
RH: You have a reputation for going to great lengths to research and understand the food. How is that reflected in the menu?
Bartolotta: Other operators have dabbled with roasted whole fish, but nobody has done it with the sort of rigor and the structure of Italianism that we put into it. I don't take a lot of liberties, I want to communicate a very clear message. I think there is a tremendous amount of disinformation about Italian food. No matter how hard you try to be authentic, everybody seems to be an authority, which makes it difficult because they all think they're right. I realized a long time ago that I didn't really care. I was going to do what's important to me, and that's it. At end of the day, if I feel good about it, I have to hope it will be well received within that framework.
When I was traveling around Italy and looking to elevate the coastal cookery, the more I thought about how to take octopus and make it more hip, the more I realized: This culture has hundreds if not thousands of years of history cooking along the sea coast, why try to evolve it if doing so will not necessarily make it better?
RH: You import most of your seafood from the Mediterranean. Isn't that a logistical nightmare?
Bartolotta: Ninety percent of what we serve is Mediterranean; the exceptions are clams, mussels and scallops, which we're not allowed to import, and some shrimp. We put a lot of legwork into it. It's a whole education process—packing, shipping, customs laws—we go through a very rigorous process to make sure the product arrives here in pristine condition. Because it's the product that has to travel the furthest, my buyers send me the best.
To read more of this interview, visit www.restauranthospitality.com/bartolotta.