In Dining

In Dining

In Dining

In Dining

In Dining

In Dining

Milwaukee Talks: Joe Bartolotta

The Bacchus buzz

There's a good chance that if you've lived in the Milwaukee-area for the past 15 years or so, that you've been to the Boulevard Inn. It was a fixture in the Milwaukee dining scene at both its Sherman Boulevard and E. Wells St. addresses. But, move over old-school Milwaukee, the big, bold, new Bacchus has replaced it.

The new Bartolotta restaurant opened March 9 and is a sleek and stylish space, and it more than raises the bar for Milwaukee dining. talked to Joe Bartolotta just prior to the opening, and we dined at Bacchus during a private tasting session just days before the official opening.

Bacchus, 925 E. Wells St. inside the historic Cudahy Tower, is far from your grandmother's Boulevard Inn, and in order to deliver the Bacchus buzz in an interesting and exciting manner, we break it down in this exclusive first taste of Milwaukee's newest fine dining experience.

"Everybody has been to the Boulevard Inn. Everybody. I fielded at least 100 calls about how angry people were that we took it over. They said, 'Oh my God, where are we going to go now? And, are you going to have the Casers Salad. Are you going to have the schaum tort, the dumpling soup? You gotta keep this item on, the pecan-crusted chicken has to stay. You know! It was just crazy,'" said Joe Bartolotta one-week before his new Bacchus restaurant was set to open at the site of the former and famed Boulevard Inn in downtown Milwaukee.

This reaction, in part, lead to the Bartolotta Restaurants' tremendous $1.5 million investment at the former Boulevard Inn space. "I said, we just can't open another restaurant that looks like the Boulevard, because we are always going to compared to the Boulevard. We had to do something very different," noted Bartolotta. And something different he has done.

The purchase
"Is there going to be some fall-out? Yes, absolutely. But, there's also a big market that stopped coming to The Boulevard, too, for whatever reason. You always have to reinvent your market. Gary Strothman, the former Boulevard Inn owner, is an absolute great guy. I like him so much, but I honestly feel for him. I feel fortunate enough that I was able to help him. Here's a guy at age 13 got into the restaurant business ... he was sucked into the business and was stuck for the next 35 years. He was fried, burned out. So, we were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and buy his business. It's worked out real well. Gary is able to get his life back a bit, and go do some interesting things," explained Bartolotta.

The name
"We named the restaurant Bacchus. Bacchus was the Roman God of wine and merriment. We thought it was an appropriate name. There are some great restaurants in Milwaukee that have a big wine impact. We want to do a very strong wine program here too. So, we built a pretty significant wine display, all glass and wood. We'll have about 350 varieties of wine on the list, up to 20 wines by the glass."

The décor and feel
This is a whole new restaurant, deep, dark rich browns and tans make it feel comfortable and classy. "We didn't want to open something that is too similar to our other restaurants. As a group, we want to be able to offer choices within the group. The beauty of it is that we have four restaurants now. A steakhouse, an Italian restaurant, a French restaurant and now a contemporary American restaurant."

The food
There's an emphasis on fresh seafood, handmade pastas and sauces, grilled-to-perfection meats and desserts that are honesty to die to for. "Contemporary American is a term that has a broad interpretation. What is it? There really is no finite definition. It is an eclectic mix of a lot of different things. A lot of different styles of food, a lot of different cooking styles, a lot of different raw materials and ingredients. We are basically taking regional and local ingredients; changing the menu very seasonally and infusing modern cooking techniques with European sauce making and European cooking techniques. There's a lot of blending, and we are offering some very different items on this menu. We are doing venison, a squabe, quail, and stripped sea bass. There's also a filet, a New York strip, short ribs-a pretty diverse menu.

"Being in Milwaukee, we wanted to push the envelope," he proudly stated.

The china
You'll notice the difference here, too. "We are using very high-end china, glassware and silverware. The silverware is from an Italian designer, Gio Ponti. He was a designer who did some very interesting stuff in the 1930s and '40s. Sambone is a stainless steel manufacturer of flatware. They picked up a design that Gio Ponti did in 1939 and they incorporated it in this new pattern. Bacchus is the only restaurant in Northern America to have this pattern; we had it shipped directly from Italy. It's a very linear and contemporary flatware. We really went the extra distance to get something unique."

The wine and service
"The wine list is very exciting, we are trying to get a bottle of wine from every state in the country. The service level will be something very unique to Milwaukee. We have team service in all of our restaurants now. And 10 years ago, we started this unique concept for Milwaukee, where you have a front and back waiter. We are doing three-man teams at this restaurant with the incorporation of a captain. It's the most ultimate type of service. There is one person who is assigned to your table, with stations of only five-table max per captain. Your captain is always in the station, he/she takes the orders and is always there watching. The front waiter gets the cocktails and gets the food, and the back waiter does the clearing and runs the food out from the kitchen. So, three people take care of five tables, a pretty intense service. With all the wine and everything else, we need great service, but still need it to be comfortable." At the tasting session, the service was fine, but as with any new restaurant, you could tell systems and strategy were still being refined.

The cost
With three drinks, one appetizer, a salad, two desserts and coffee, our bill came to $123.20. "Price-wise, we are going to be more expensive than our other restaurants, but less expensive than some of the steak houses out there. You can go to a steak house now and spend $70 without a problem. Our check average will probably fall in the $50-60 range per person. We will do Sunday Brunch here, a business lunch and dinner seven nights per week."

The chef
"Brandon Wulff is just a kid full of energy. We ran five restaurants for Potawatomi, one was Dream Dance; he was the chef there. He's 35, young and is a very creative mind. He'll work very well with my brother, Paul."

The buzz
This is fine food and high service. Oysters au gratin opened the meal. They slid down the throat with great flavor and left me wanting more. My filet was grilled perfectly, and unlike too many restaurants today, the portion size and presentation were perfect too. My dining companions' stripped sea bass was warm, flaky and served in a large Sambone china bowl. Desserts are a must. At only $6.50, ruby red grapefruit slices are warmed and layered over a flaky, cinnamon crust and topped with homemade pistachio ice cream. It was a unique flavor experience, and for my dollar, one of the city's better desserts. The chocolate torte was accompanied with a small scoop of espresso ice cream. It was warm, moist and a chocolate lovers dream.

Bacchus is open for lunch Monday - Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. beginning in April. Dinner is served Monday - Thursday, 5 - 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-10 p.m. and Sunday from 5 to 8 p.m. (end of April) Sunday brunch begins in April and runs from 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Call (414) 765-1166 for reservations.
Joe Bartolotta was born and raised in Milwaukee. His father ran the Pabst Theater for most of his life, so Bartolotta got an early taste of what the limelight was all about. He's used this training to promote and develop some of the most successful restaurants in Milwaukee.

With more than 360 employees, Bartolotta Restaurants operates six area restaurants, including the very impressive Bacchus which opened on March 9, in the Cudahy Towers in downtown Milwaukee.

Just weeks before the opening of his latest creation, Bartolotta talked with about his life, his restaurants and of course, his city.

OMC: What was growing up in Milwaukee like for you?

JB: I bounced through school, Lincoln grade school, Longfellow Middle School and Wauwatosa East (1977). Grew up on 71st and Milwaukee Avenue, and lived there until I was 21. (I) literally didn't know what I wanted to do after high school. But, my brother Paul did. He moved to Europe and worked as a chef in Italy and France.

Then, it occurred to me one day that Paul is a great chef, and he's going to come back to the States as a great chef and that I need to get my butt into the restaurant business.

But, I was still bouncing around a lot, loading trucks at UPS, done a lot of bar tending, hadn't had a date all through high school -- was scared to death of women. So, my dad suggested focusing on bartending and just talking to more people. So, I started bartending at Walter's on North and had a great time while learning a lot about people. You really become a therapist, so to speak. Then, I had an opportunity to move to Manhattan and I did for the next 8-9 years. I liked it a lot and learned a lot about business and again, a lot about people.

I didn't go to a culinary school. I planned each of my moves going from restaurant to restaurant and moving on to the next set of experiences. That was my college, my education, that's how I learned - working for other people. I made most of my mistakes with other people's money. In essence, that's what you do.

OMC: Tell about the restaurant business.

JB: You learn from other people, so you don't fall into the same pitfalls. The restaurant business has a very high mortality rate, due in part to people thinking, "ah, hell, I can do this ... I'd love to open a restaurant" and they don't have a clue as to what really goes into it. It's a challenging business, and it's becoming more and more so. Years ago, you could be a poor operator and still make a lot of money because there was a big bar business; a big following ... things have gotten very, very competitive now.

It's now harder to get in, the financial costs are enormous. I have about $1.5 million tied up into the renovations at Bacchus. It's a big investment and it's a risky gamble, especially in this market.

OMC: What about restaurants in Milwaukee?

JB: What hurts restaurants in Milwaukee, more than anything, unlike other cities, there seems to be a resistance to going out past 7:30 p.m. --I don't know what that is. Most of my restaurants, as busy as they are, by 8 or 8:30, they are more empty -- and it's the case with almost all restaurants in Milwaukee. There are exceptions, but it seems to be that people in Milwaukee eat between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. and that's it. Even on Saturday nights, to get somebody to take a 9:30 p.m. reservation is like pulling teeth. And, unlike a Chicago or New York City, even a Minneapolis, where people are more accustomed to dining longer hours -- the net result is that we lose a whole turn in our business and our sales are somewhat handicapped by that at times.

I think (the resistance to late reservations) is a factor of population, the demographic, the culture ... as crazy as it sounds, the news is on at 10 p.m., and in a lot of other markets it's on later at 10:30 or 11, and people judge that as a time to be at home and be in bed. Milwaukeeans also seem to start work a lot earlier, 9-5 may be the norm, but many places start up by 7-7:30 a.m. and you've got to be in bed early.

OMC: What's your advice for someone wanting to get into the restaurant business?

JB: Make your mistakes with other people's money. You really need to roll up the sleeves and work for some people that you respect. You really need to work in the business for a while to see if this is what you want to do. You also have to have a good understanding of the commitment involved. It isn't just a job that you go to for eight hours each day, you live and breath every minute of every day. And, the other thing is that you have to do your homework to understand the market. Find a niche and do it better than anyone else. Like we did with our pizzerias.

OMC: Tell us about the Pizzerias Piccola.

JB: We opened the little Piccolas, and we found a niche that is very real and very viable. Wonderful, little wood-fired pizzas. Handmade, to order, very quickly. Really high quality ingredients. And, although it's been successful, it's been a struggle since we've realized that pizza is an intensely personal thing. Everyone has his or her favorite pizza. Right now we are competing with Zaffiro's, Lisa's, Pizza Man, Mama Mia's, Balistreri's. I've eaten at Balistreri's for 30 years, I love it. Our pizza is very different. Is it better or worse? I don't know. They both eat great. So, (we want to) get people into a habit (of ordering pizza from Pizzeria Piccola) and that's a matter of understanding your market.

OMC: Have the dynamics in the Milwaukee area restaurant scene changed in the past 10 years?

JB: Here's what I've noticed about Milwaukee, they are very pack-like. They travel in packs, in groups -- there's the young people, the North Shore people, the East Side people, the West Side people, other groups -- and, the best diners (for me) really seem to be the North Shore. They are always the first to get on the bandwagon, the first to make the reservation.

When a restaurant opens in Milwaukee, most of the time it opens to pretty good fanfare. Everybody wants to be at the hot, new place. They will, in turn, go back 2-3 times with other people since it's "their" discovery. "I found this restaurant," people say ... I have to take you there. It's a bragging rights type of thing. But, if the restaurant hasn't really made a commitment to food, quality and service they tend to become very marginal, very quickly in Milwaukee because we just don't have the population-base to support them. If we had 4 million people, that buzz would carry on for years, but with only 1 million people that buzz doesn't carry on as long.

OMC: How have you handled the growth of the business?

JB: Now with the two pizzerias and four restaurants, I've had to really learn to alter my management style. I can't touch everything anymore, I can't control everything anymore. I struggle with it everyday because I'm a control freak when it comes to things being exact -- but I know that I can't go into my restaurants and micro-manage them either. I trust my restaurants to people who I've hired who buy into the same philosophy that I do. Therefore, it's allowed us to grow. If I held them (my employees) back, we wouldn't be able to grow.

OMC: Are you worried about the increased competition of chain restaurants in the Metro Milwaukee area?

JB: Great question. There have been two additions lately. One is P.F. Chang's and the second is Maggiano's. They are both at Mayfair, and both at Mayfair for a reason. Mayfair has a lot of density, a lot of people coming to it. That's the kind of location that those chains need. They mandate a certain sales level that they need to get to in order for a location/city to be viable, and all the research indicates that Milwaukee restaurants, typically, don't get to that level in sales.

So the chains sort of shy away from Milwaukee. But, that's OK. I'd rather be a big fish in a small pond, so to speak. And, it works well for us.

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OMCreader | July 2, 2005 at 8:42 a.m. (report)

Sunny said: Joe mentions the Journal Sentinel's Reader's Choice poll and how people choose chains as having the "best" food. I will never understand how anyone can say that a chain has the best food. They are all average at best and people are missing some great opportunities for wonderful dining experiences when they choose chain food over independent restaurants.

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