Bartolotta Restaurants has reached a watershed anniversary year, and the celebrations started with some nuanced updates to its firstborn, Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993.
7616 W. State St.
To launch the celebratory year, the Bartolottas halted operations for close to a month for updates that include a state-of-the-art kitchen with a fancy Hestan stove. James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Bartolotta designed the kitchen “from scratch,” says his brother/co-owner Joe. It raises the bar for a company focusing its attention inward, not on expanding in a “saturated” market, Joe says. Diners have extra-handsome china and flatware with which to eat and freshly reupholstered seats, refinished floors and a retiled bar area.
The kitchen upgrades “inspire you to cook at a different level,” says executive chef Juan Urbieta. When the doors reopened in late June, the menu with its tried-and-trues returned, too, but in almost every category, there’s something new. The servers seem to have more wind in their sails as well. One evening, we were served by a trio that knew the menus backwards and forwards. This just doesn’t happen often enough with restaurant service.
Ristorante’s baked buffalo mozzarella is a rich, saucy appetizer magnifico for sharing ($12). It arrives in its cast-iron baking crock, bubbly and aromatic and bobbing with roasted cherry tomatoes, mild green Sicilian olives and fresh oregano. We spoon the filling on grilled bread, relishing the creamy cheese and intensely herby oregano. A new app, sautéed pink shrimp, is tender but not mushy, and the smooth chickpea sauce served with the shellfish is suffused with smoky, woodsy fresh rosemary ($14).
Ristorante offers its homemade pastas in two sizes, ideal for groups. Chewy ribbons of pappardelle with stewy slow-braised duck ragu is a menu anchor, and as good as ever ($18, $27). New is a rustic porcini mushroom sauce over handmade tagliatelle that’s al dente and comforting ($16, $25). Another pasta is so good, it outshines the mainstays. Delicate but luxe, the Tuscan ricotta-spinach gnudi – lighter than potato-based gnocchi – are sage-wrapped flavor marvels ($18, $27).
The classic chicken al mattone is still wonderful ($27) – the bird butterflied, flattened and weighed down as it’s grilled. Juicy meat meets crisp skin. An impressive newbie, seared lamb chops ($34) are some of the mildest, most tender I’ve eaten. Another add, oven-baked sea bream, has the fine, beautifully light texture of Dover sole ($32).
A welcome finale is the light chilled lemon cream topped with a thin layer of lemon gelee and toasted meringue ($9).
Joe expounds on what makes Ristorante special in the way parents do their first child. Bartolotta’s inner-directed focus pushes everyone to work harder. Says Joe: “I’m proud and excited we have been a training facility [for chefs who have gone to work elsewhere and] helped elevate dining in this city. We’re trying to make what we have better.”
Talking Italian with Joe Bartolotta and Juan Urbieta
MilMag: Were there moments you doubted that the concept of an intimate, high-end Northern Italian restaurant was going to work? Downtown Tosa was a much different place in ’93. The Chancery was one of the few restaurants on State Street.
Joe B: After the second year, I was exhausted. I couldn’t afford to hire a manager. I realized the restaurant was too small to make an impact. I needed to expand and grow [leading to Lake Park Bistro in 1995]. It was scary the first couple of years. Literally, [diners] were asking for spaghetti and meatballs and veal Parmesan. There was a learning curve, and a heavy Sicilian population in Milwaukee. Our food was steeped in olive oil and proteins and shellfish.
MilMag: Can you share a particularly fond memory from Ristorante days past?
Joe B: I have a picture of when my ex-wife was pregnant with our second daughter. That night, my father brought in Tony Bennett. The photo is of Tony standing in front of the bar touching my [then-] wife’s stomach.
Juan: Seven or eight years ago, we had Gaia Gaja from the top wine label in Italy [Gaja Wines, touted as revolutionizing Italian winemaking] in for a dinner. They fly in and everything in our kitchen is ready for them. I am their sous chef. Giovanni, the youngest son, is coming back for a wine dinner on Oct. 24. It will be awesome having them back.