How did the Bartolotta brothers, partners in the Milwaukee-based Bartolotta Restaurants group, become leading restaurateurs in the Midwest? Joe Bartolotta, president and co-owner, would point out that his brother, Paul, brought talent and experience from working in the kitchens of storied spots like the Rainbow Room in New York and Spiaggia in Chicago; he had been executive chef at the latter for nine years. But Paul, chef and co-owner, would credit Joe's knack for finding business opportunities and managing diverse concepts over the past quarter-century in Wisconsin's biggest city. The admiration the brothers have for each other is palpable.
The Milwaukee-area natives went from opening their first 55-seat restaurant, Ristorante Bartolotta, back in 1993, to now running 17 restaurants and catering venues, with cuisines ranging from Italian to French to contemporary American—even a "custard stand"—while managing some 1,000 employees. These ventures include Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Bacchus and Award of Excellence winners Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, Mr. B's Steakhouses and the original Ristorante Bartolotta. There's also Care-a-Lotta, an organization that supports some 200 different charities in the Milwaukee community, where "everybody wants to give and help," says Joe.
The business partner–brother duo spoke with editorial assistant Brianne Garrett about building a fine-dining empire from nothing, their first wine argument, and what the future holds in Milwaukee—and beyond.
Wine Spectator: What is the dynamic like, running a business with a sibling?
Paul Bartolotta: So my brother obviously leads the business—he is living it every day and has sourced some really remarkably unique buildings and locations, and built some really beautifully interior-designed restaurants. We collaborate on the menu, the development and the functioning of [them].
Joe Bartolotta: Part of being a great businessman is identifying great resources and assets, and my brother, Paul—he's won two [James] Beard awards; he's a brilliant chef. He's worked long stints in Chicago at Spiaggia and long stints in Las Vegas. From my perspective—I'm not a chef, I know my way around a kitchen pretty good, but Paul's the chef; Paul's the culinary engine of the company.
WS: How have Bartolotta restaurants evolved since your first opening in 1993?
JB: We've become very passionate. We've gotten a lot better at educating the guests, because when you educate the guest, that creates an emotional connection; they feel they've gotten some knowledge and some hospitality. I think that's really the strength of our company.
PB: We want to have a dialogue where, if people want to ask a question or make a comment on something, they don't get barbecued so the next time they're hesitant to raise their hand. We [also] put in place a lot of good people. There's a team of other chefs; I've never really stepped in front of our chefs, because if I wasn’t living in that same town all the time, why should I take the credit when they're doing the heavy lifting? These guys are working their hardest.
WS: When and how did wine become a focus at your restaurants?
JB: We approach our wine lists very differently, perhaps, than most. The first restaurant was Italian, [Ristorante Bartolotta], and Paul and I got into a little debate, because I had most recently worked at big hotels, and I was used to a wine list that was broad and diverse and had a lot of international choices for the guests. When we started to open the Italian restaurant, Paul put his foot down and was very adamant about an all-Italian wine list. I was really afraid, because people want a Napa Valley Chardonnay, you know?
PB: He was like, "We need something where people will immediately go, 'I know that wine.'" We didn't have any track record in this market; we weren't really sure what would work. And even a lot of the Italian wines weren't the Chianti in the flask. We were already bringing in the kind of wine I was used to in Chicago, getting them brought up here because there wasn't even distribution of those [wines in Milwaukee]. But this has obviously changed dramatically since then.
JB: Lake Park Bistro—that was our second [restaurant]—is the all-French list, and then the third restaurant was Bacchus, and that became more of an international-type restaurant. So we have a lot more selections there from a lot of different producers and countries.
We've been able to educate the guests—that's probably the most important part. We trained our servers really thoroughly, and when it came to pushing back and saying, "Well, I want something that tastes like a Chardonnay, but I'm not familiar with any of the Italian wines," we had to train them and educate them that Italian wines have the same properties and a lot of the same flavor profiles as what they may be used to, and they began to start drinking the Italian wines and understanding them. And I hear this from even our distributors; one of them was in Ristorante last week or so and he said to me, "Gosh, I remember in the very beginning when you were asking for all these weird wines that nobody had, and now it's just commonplace."
WS: Has there ever been talk of expanding beyond Milwaukee?
JB: We're looking for other opportunities, maybe in a bigger market. My brother Paul has succeeded in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. I can open one restaurant in a major market—likely Chicago, L.A., New York—and it's equivalent to the sales of three or four of our restaurants. There are added costs, being a bigger market, but the upside opportunity is significantly higher.
Milwaukee is a funny culinary scene—it's got a lot of growth going on, a lot of young independents are opening, a lot of creative guys doing interesting stuff.
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