Paul Bartolotta may be one of the leading practitioners of alta cucina Italiana in the United States, but that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate a good Sunday sugo.

Paul Bartolotta
Bartolotta whets his appetite by inspecting the warm garlic bread.

Paul Bartolotta has been elevating Italian food into the foremost cuisine in America for 25 years. After extensive training in top kitchens all over Italy and France, he took his knowledge to San Domenico in New York and Spiaggia in Chicago, where his refined approach turned those restaurants into fine-dining destinations as thrilling as any of the French haute cuisine places that dominated at the time. Since 2005, the chef has dazzled diners at Wynn’s simultaneously spectacular and simple Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, where his imported, otherwise impossible-to-find seafood, including the world’s most famous langoustines, is the star. The fish is prepared simply, but one bite of any pasta dish reminds you there’s a master chef (with two James Beard Awards) bringing you the authentic tastes of Italy. As steadfastly Italian as his food, Bartolotta grew up in Milwaukee, where he also owns a sprawling restaurant empire with his siblings. During an off-Strip dinner at the loudly and proudly Italian-American spot Casa di Amore, which serves one-pound pasta bowls and blankets the table with spaghetti, fettuccine, and veal, Bartolotta goes back to the beginning.

Paul Bartolotta
The ambience at Casa di Amore is loudly and proudly Italian-American.

The waiter, Tony, recommends steamed clams to start and brings them with hot homemade bread. “Dip it in the clam broth,” he says. Bartolotta digs into the clams.

Did I see that this place is open until 5 in the morning?

Yeah, I can imagine eating here at, like, 3 am.
You’re darn right. It’s, like, 3 in the morning and you want something ribsticking. That’s here.

How did your lifelong relationship with food start?
I was born of a Sicilian father and an Austrian mom. The dominant gene in the household was definitely the Italian one. It was about family, respect, and food. It was about faith, religion. On Saturday mornings my dad would say, “Come on, son, let’s go down to the East Side.” Brady Street was our Little Italy area, with Glorioso’s market and the Italian fish markets and Sciortino’s bakery. Saturday afternoon I’d go play with my friends like a typical American kid—football, baseball, basketball. But by four o’clock, there was a big cowbell my mother would ring, and all the kids in the neighborhood would come. There would be a table covered with ham and Sciortino’s rolls and salami and cheese, and things like periwinkle snails we would pick out with needles.

Paul Bartolotta
Gypsy pasta with a spicy marinara sauce and fried shrimp.

Tony brings red wine and the main courses: veal francese and spicy gypsy pasta with shrimp.

On Sunday morning, my dad would have this big kettle of sauce, and he would put the meatballs in and be like, “Okay, time to go to church.” And we would all rush off to Mass. After Mass we would come home, and the whole game was who could finish the meal with a white shirt.

Food is a vital part of the Italian-American experience.
The Italians didn’t come to America to become American. They left because there was extreme poverty. They had no interest in being American, hence they created their own little communities that even to this day are known as Little Italys. They got here, there were no fresh herbs, they didn’t have any of their seafood, but they had flavors they were looking for, and they invented Italian-American food.

Some Italian restaurants here don’t use any Italian ingredients.
If you make a mockery and a joke out of the Italian-American culture and evolution, I have a gigantic issue with that. If some non-Italian makes “goombah chicken” on his menu, that enrages me. However, those like Casa di Amore that make an honest effort to maintain or re-create the flavor of the Italian-American experience and how it evolved, I think that’s great. The ingeniousness of the Italian-American is making Italian food with non-Italian ingredients.

Paul Bartolotta
Bartolotta gets animated discussing the importance of preserving authentic Italian-American flavors.

Food in Italy is a lot different.
I ate meatballs once in eight years I lived in Italy, and they were little veal meatballs served with braised leeks, pecorino cheese, and a really spicy dollop of tomato paste.

Bartolotta is impressed by the Monday night crowd. “Mondays can be busier than a Friday or Saturday here,” Tony says, “because we have half price on wine.”

You and your family in Milwaukee recently had a meatball contest.
We did a little bit of estate planning and big-picture thinking. To create some levity, I think my sister Maria came up with the idea to do a meatball competition. Teddy, my brother-in-law, is from Brooklyn and his mom’s name is Rosalie, so he made Rosalie’s meatballs. My sister Felicia made her recollection of meatballs. My brother Joe had his version, with sausage. I had this taste memory of my dad’s. I was so happy with my meatballs. I came in second place. Teddy, by the way, burned my sauce and my meatballs.

What was in your meatball?
One-third pork, two-thirds beef, lots of Romano cheese, a small amount of Parmigiano, eggs, a boatload of garlic, parsley, salt, and black pepper. I sautéed them in olive oil like my dad. My sister froze some of them; she thawed them out a couple weeks ago and called me to say, “My God, they taste just like Dad’s. I can’t believe you didn’t win.” I said, “Yeah, because your f---ing husband scorched my sauce—he sabotaged me!”

Like what you're reading? Get it delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now for our newsletters >>