With unparalled vision, chef Paul Bartolotta realizes an incredible dream, bringing the flavors of Italy's most breathtaking seafood to an astonishing desert location.
by Mindy Fox
Check out this slideshow featuring exclusive behind-the-scenes photos of Chef Bartolotta's amazing operation.
‘‘Feel how firm that sucker is,” Paul Bartolotta exclaims. “Look at the eye. This is a gorgeous fish!” A mere 18 to 24 hours out of the waters that surround Italy—the Adriatic, Ionian, Tyrrhenian and Ligurian seas, and the Strait of Sicily—a treasure trove of what is arguably the country’s most pristine seafood sparkles under the flood lights of a refrigerated loading dock in the middle of America’s second largest desert. As paradoxical as this situation may seem, this is Las Vegas, a place where even the wildest dreams can become reality. Certainly this is true for Paul Bartolotta, chef of the award-winning Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel.
Bartolotta calls out the name of each fish in Italian, English, Latin, and occasionally, French and Spanish. “Pagello!,” he sings, holding up a silver specimen with a candy-pink glow. Its gold-rimmed, velvet-blue eyes pop from their sockets like Murano glass jewels. “Strawberry snapper; pagellus erythrinus!” Knowing several languages is helpful, but seafood nomenclature is a thorny matter. His fluency in scientific designations ensures he gets what he orders.
Trailing Bartolotta as he navigates this shipment is a crash course in the marvels of the Mediterranean marine world. “You want that coloration,” he explains, pointing out the deep ruby gills of a branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), “and the gills should be relatively dry, not pasty.” There are squarish, pancake-flat rombi chiodati (turbot), with their brown-flecked sheen; shiny naselline (tiny hake); and canocchie (mantis shrimp), named for their exotic markings that recall the insect. When they’re available, Bartolotta gets moleche, green estuary crabs from Venice, “moece in Venetian dialect,” he says, delighted by their arrival.
Bartolotta holds up a box of rossetti (elvers), tiny delicacies skimmed from nighttime waters with a hand-held sieve. “Do you know how rare this is?” he asks. He has many rarities. Fish like slipper lobsters, which have to be handpicked from caves by divers, and Sicilian amberjack seldom show up in even the finest of restaurants. His variety is equally astonishing: Since the restaurant opened in 2005, he has served 78 species, presenting upwards of 45 each night. Each species of fish is a shining medal of honor reflecting his dedication.
He’s been working for 16 hours when a call comes in from one of his fish brokers in Italy. Even though it’s after midnight here, the Italian fishing boats have already returned to port, so Bartolotta works in two time zones. “Niente scarfano oggi? Va bene,” he says, making notes on an inventory tracking form. “Occhioni? Fantastico. Li prendo.”
To receive fish this fresh, he prepays airlines and monitors his shipments with thermal microchips that track the internal temperatures of the boxes. Few eateries could afford this level of commitment. But Las Vegas is a new landscape for sophisticated cuisine, and Steve Wynn is one of its most famous hoteliers. Bartolotta has a deep appreciation for the man who helped bring his vision to life. “Michelangelo needed the Pope,” he says. “I’m no Michelangelo, but I did find Steve Wynn.”
Bartolotta is, however, a two-time James Beard Award winner for Best Chef and an ambassador of authentic Italian cuisine. A native of Milwaukee, flashy Las Vegas might seem a far cry from his Midwestern roots. But long before he landed at Wynn’s glittering resort and casino, Bartolotta worked his way through several of Europe’s most acclaimed kitchens. His four-year stint with chef Valentino Marcattilii at Ristorante San Domenico, in Imola, earned him the title of chef di cucina at 24 years old. “I’ve cooked in Italy, France and New York, but I’ve also cooked in Milwaukee,” Bartolotta says with an appealing lack of pretense.
Bartolotta maintains this humble air even when describing his most mind-boggling triumph: his live langoustines, nephrops norvegicus. Called scampi in Italy (not to be confused with shrimp), langoustines are slender, 3- to 10-inch long orange-pink lobsters. Thin-shelled with long, skinny claws, their meat is impossibly delicate and subtly sweet. “I tasted live langoustines from Scotland, Norway, Spain, Denmark, Istria, France, all over Italy and beyond to find the one I wanted,” he tells me, not revealing which he finally chose. “There may be a better one out there, I just haven’t found it yet.” It took Bartolotta almost three years to convince his “langoustine guy” to do business with him. “‘I’m not sending my langoustines to the desert,’” he says, recalling his source’s initial resistance. But Bartolotta, determined to serve live langoustines that would be frolicking even 2 to 3 weeks after travel, persisted. “Eventually, he agreed to work with me on one condition: that I keep the langoustines live using a tank system with a water chemistry that paralleled their natural environment.”
Crustaceans can hold oxygen in their gills, making air travel possible, but not without meticulous systems in place. Just the right amount of refrigerant is necessary to slow the metabolism of the shellfish so they can “sleep” on the way over. They are sensitive to stress, and making sure they are carefully packed is half the battle. Upon arrival, the shipments land in the hands of Yasmin Tajik, the onsite marine biologist dedicated to the welfare of these and the Wynn’s other live seafood that are destined for dinner tables.
Opening a box of langoustines, Bartolotta exudes contagious elation. Tucked head first into their own plastic berths, the little lobsters are lined up like merchant marines in their bunks.As the ambient temperature gently wakes them, their bright orange tails begin to unfurl. Bartolotta breaks one open. Its raw flavors are at first sweet, and then salty.
There’s a beautiful purity to the way Bartolotta’s team handles his fish—from catch to dinner service. It recalls a time before commercial boats dragged heavy plates across the ocean floor, taking crushed fish and other sea life with them. Bartolotta’s fish are caught the old-fashioned way, some by lenza (fishing line), some by reti (gill nets), some in trappole (in traps), some in nasse (in basket traps) and even a few by hand. These low-impact methods yield fish that are fresher and far less bruised than their commercial counterparts. Bartolotta’s kitchen is focused on preserving this quality. The fish butchers, with a strong yet gentle touch, rinse, weigh and tag each fish before dinner service. It is only when in order comes in from the dining room that a fish is scaled and cleaned.
Unadorned seaside cuisine is not unusual in Italy, yet this is precisely how Bartolotta is redefining trends of Italian cuisine in America.“You can work with beautiful product, but if it’s not from Italy, it doesn’t taste like Italy,” he says. His obsession with the quality and source of his product is rooted in his extraordinary palate. “Every time I cooked my seafood dishes with fish from other places, it did not say, ‘Italy,’” he says, recalling his esteemed work at New York’s San Domenico and Chicago’s Spiaggia in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “If you taste New Zealand John dory next to my John dory—forget it. It’s not the same taste. It’s tender. It looks the same. It’s just not the same flavor.”His genius is strikingly simple—get the best ingredients available and apply the wisdom of restraint. You don’t go through this much effort for fish this exceptional only to mask their flavor by over-thinking the food. Before opening the restaurant, his biggest question was, would fish on the bone sell? “I wanted to serve fish all’etto (in 100 gram increments),” he says, following Italian tradition. “But would unusual species sold by weight work?” It did. Phenomenally well.
“Truly, this is the least amount of cooking I’ve ever done,” Bartolotta says as he serves me dishes from the kitchen. Moleche, naselline, trigliette (small red mullet), and gamberi rossi imperiali (red imperial shrimp) are dusted with doppio zero flour and fried crisp for the fritto di mare; alici (anchovies) are baked with aromatic herbs; and clams, scallops, lobster, shrimp and calamari are cooked in a creamy cuttlefish ink risotto. Whole gilthead sea bream is roasted with green olives, tomatoes, capers and wine, while big-eye spotted sea bream is packed in sea salt flavored with citrus and fennel pollen, then baked. An 1,800 gram rombo is doused with fresh green olive oil, seasoned with a generous sweep of sea salt and gently roasted.
After four days with Paul Bartolotta, on the loading dock, at the fish butcher’s station in his kitchen, experiencing the wonders of the tank room and sharing an unforgettable feast with him, never once did the smell of fish permeate the air—it always smelled like the ocean. His food tastes that way, too.
—Mindy Fox is the food editor of La Cucina Italiana and co-author of
Olives & Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond.
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