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Paul Bartolotta on the Midwest, Las Vegas, and Defining Italian Cuisine

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Today as part of the Cayman Cookout on Grand Cayman, we're coming at you live poolside at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. (If you're in the neighborhood, do come say hello.) Watch for Q&As and breaking news tidbits throughout the day. And now: chef Paul Bartolotta talks about the nostalgia for Midwestern cuisine, rumors of an expansion to New York, and discusses at length how to define Italian food today.

Paul Bartolotta and family [Photo: Raphael Brion/]

How did you get involved with the Cookout?
I got a call from Eric [Ripert] one day and he asked, "Hey, what are you doing in January?" I said I don't know. I'd heard about the Cookout through chef circles and I was like, "Sign me up. I'm in." That was an easy one.

And it's been good?
It's been great. I mean, look around. This is so awesome.

We have heard some rumors about you opening a restaurant in New York.
My wife and daughter live in New York. My daughter is in school there right now. New York is one of the cities that I'm very interested in doing a restaurant in, yes. I love New York.

So what is the project?
Not until the ink has dried.

Is it similar to what you're doing in Las Vegas?
In some parts it will be similar, but different. More casual.

So do you have big plans for the 20th anniversary of Ristorante Bartolotta?
We are going to do a few things, but we aren't going to overdo it because we opted to make the 25th the bigger one. We just felt like 25th seemed bigger than 20.

I know you own two Wisconsin supper club-style restaurants.
We opened them in August this year.

I've noticed this resurgence in interest in Midwestern food.
You know, New York had a point where everything was brought into New York and there was nothing local. Maybe 15-20 years ago that started changing when the Hudson Valley really started becoming a fertile farm environment for people. I'm a fan of local when possible. But it's like saying, too strict is silly because unless you're in Florida nobody has lemons. It's not as though everything can be local. We have made an effort to support as many local farmers as possible in Wisconsin.

The supper club idea came about because we chose two locations where we didn't feel like we had other concepts that were appropriate for that neighborhood. So then we thought, what would be a good thing to do? And a lot of it had to do with doing food that we thought harkened to the history of what people grew up on. And when we were kids our parents took us to supper clubs upstate. So we did a very good inspiration of a supper club. I wouldn't say it's the most traditional. Things do evolve. But I think we respect the idea.

You once said of creating menus, "It must be Italianissimo. By that, I mean something that is almost so traditional that it's not creative, that it's not inventive, that it's not original." We've been having this discussion with people about this ideal of culinary intellectual property. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I lived in Italy during the very late 70s and mostly through the 80s and Italy itself was having its first food evolution in a long time. Winemakers were experimenting with blends, hence the nuisance of Super Tuscans that were Sangiovese with Cabernet or Merlot or Sirah and blending with varietals that were not indigenous to Italy. You had the first wines in Italy that were made with French oak. You had young chefs going to France and coming back and including some French technique and prepation to their Italian food.

When I arrived there I saw some of that food and thought, that didn't seem like Italian to me. And all the high-end Italian restaurants that were cooking in Italy were somewhat Francofied. And not to take anything away from it because Italy needed to have that evolution to be where it is today and where it will be tomorrow, but at the time I thought it was the wrong direction. Hence I've changed my opinion of it. I went back and I said to myself I cannot cook this French-ized Italian food when I come back to the States.

But then I realized if I wanted to be an Italian chef I needed to become an academic, not just a cook. So I took an anthropological approach to the study of Italian food and gastronomy to understand both geography and how food evolved. So then I went around and worked in a lot of these simple little restaurants. I was running a two-star Michelin restaurant that did haute cuisine called San Domenico, I was chef de cuisine. I said to myself, I can't only cook this food, because I don't think I could cook this food in the States when I return home. So I started traveling around, all these trattorias and these little simple restaurants where it's mother and father, husband and wife, family run businesses, not grand restaurants, but really good restaurants.

And then in every one of those restaurants I said what should I learn? So they sent me out fishing with the fisherman, they sent me to work with cheesemakers, they sent me to work in a couple of bakeries, they sent me out in these farms. I didn't go and apprentice in a bunch of restaurants, but I went to make cheese and I went to learn how to make salumi. And I did all of that study. I'm an expert of none of it, but I have a clear idea of the regionality and the distinctions and what I think is the most important, which is that sensibility that is Italian.

Does everybody understand how Italianate what I do is? Probably not. I know. The only judge that I have is me. I learned to define Italian food in three different categories as a result of my studies. There is traditional and regional that has to do with doing things the way it's always been done. There is regionally inspired. And then there is room in all cuisines and styles for modern interpretive, cucina moderna. I cook all three.

When I was at San Domenico New York I was cooking cucina creativa, cucina moderna because I wanted to impress people and I was young and it was about stars and it was about accolades and media. When you're young, you cook with testosterone, all the wrong reasons. When I moved to Chicago, I couldn't cook that forward of a food, the market hadn't quite been exposed to it. That would have been a bad business decision. But I was also sort of tired of doing that, so I moved it into a cuisine at Spiaggia that was much more interpretive Italian food. Regionally inspired.

If I said to you, if I made langoustines with braised cabbage, black truffles, and foie gras, does that sound very Italian to you? Probably not so much. But why can't I cook that? If the French can make white truffles everywhere and every French restaurant in the world has ravioli and gnocchi on it, why is it that we don't criticize other cultures for cooking whatever the hell they want today? But in Italy if we add something that isn't really Italian, then you're not really an Italian chef? I think there's a distinction between the freedom to cook whatever you want if you're an Italian chef as long as your restaurant is that style consistently.

So my food, what I'm cooking now at Wynn is so textbook traditional, so incredibly boring, so amazingly unoriginal that I've never been more proud of it and the fact that there's nothing creative about what I do. I think there's a skill to the sourcing and there's a discipline that's required to take ingredients out to have that clarity to not want to impress, to add something just because it needs a little show but to do it in a way that's very clear. The beauty of the Italian kitchen is the simplicity of it and the quality of the ingredients. And so my seafood that I'm cooking today is so incredibly simple. It's the least amount of cooking I've ever done, and that has made me the most proud.

I would also say that at this moment in time, the more I realize that the world is casualized. Today I served a tasting menu family-style. Not individually plated with something fried on top and little droplets around it and lentils picked by blind monks at 800 meters. None of that. Just simple food. My goal is to take the customer to Italy. To transport them to that flavor. When I was asked, why can't you make this with American fish? My answer was there's nothing wrong with American fish. It's great, it just doesn't taste like the Italian one. If I want to take you to Capri or to Napoli, then I need to have that flavor, that food. And it tastes differently. It just does.

And your upcoming projects, are they going to move toward that?
There are two extremes. I want a more old school one, but I want to do that luxury freedom fine dining restaurant at some point. And therefore, the spaces I'm looking for are to expand upon a more casual version of my seafood concept. Not as fancy as I do at Wynn. I think that's right for Wynn, but in certain places people are just much more casual. I'd still serve the same food, and it could never be cheap because this quality has a price tag. But you're not paying for the wraparound. You're paying for what's on your plate.

I may get back to that fine dining. If I find that location to do a very luxury restaurant, I might shock everybody by doing that. I had a guy ask me, would you do a French seafood restaurant? I said sure. I worked in France, I speak French, no problem. I find the location and then I'll decide what I'm going to do. I have all kinds of ideas that are percolating in my head . I love the origination process, but I'm very much of a hands-on executor, so that's why I've stayed in two locations. I'm at a point now where my crew want more, so I'm almost forced to expand so that these people can grow with me. At the end of the day, if you want to keep good people you have to keep them stimulated and keep their income and quality of life and lifestyle growing.

· All Paul Bartolotta Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cayman Cookout 2013 Coverage on Eater [-E-]