Know anyone who carries around a picture of their kidney?
You did if you had the good fotune to have spent any time with Joe Bartolotta, the Milwaukee restauranteur who died Tuesday at the way-too-early-age of 60.
Joe had a raft of business successes, which he would gladly discuss and a few failures, too. He wasn't afraid to discuss the flops, either. He used those as learning experiences, to teach others that there's nothing wrong with trying something new. The mistake, he would say, was in sticking with it too long.
Joe was also more than comfortable talking about his health–his love of food which he would say was his only vice, as well as his diabetes and the fact he needed a kidney transplant. The organ came from his brother in law, a body part he claimed to have a picture of somewhere. Joe would often talk about the need for organ donation in the years following the procedure.
His generosity knew no bounds be it with time, effort or money. A guy wno never took a cooking class, who barely made it through high school and who never attended college would gladly show others how to cook or run a restaurant. That, says Sanford founder Sandy D'Amato, is a big part of the Bartolotta legacy: the people who worked with Joe, who learned his ways. Sandy told us on Wisconsin's Morning News that he could almost hear Bartolotta's voice when a former Joe employee would come to him for a job, that he knew full well that they'd be “good people.”
He was working at UPS after high school, and tending bar at Walter's on North in Tosa when Joe says the light went on. His brother Paul always knew food was his calling but Joe admits it took a llittle longer for him to answer his calling. He'd go to New York and work a major eaterie, doing all the minor grunt work. Joe'd learn to run the front of the house and, most importantly, “to make my mistakes using other people's money.”
Joe and his wife–the third and last woman he ever dated–gave so much back to the community. Generosity like that comes with a big heart. We don't have a picture of THAT organ, but we can see evidence of it all over town. He is gone, but that part of his life will live on.
So will the empire, hopefully. Joe counted more than 20 business interests when he and I last spoke on WTMJ Conversations in the fall of 2016. That included the restaurants, the partnerships, the catering biz and all of his other giggin'. Of all the places he ran, the one he told me he still liked best was Ristorante Bartolotta in Wauwatosa where it all began in 1993. I was flattered when he asked me on the Q-T about how a high-end supper-club would work in my neck of the Hales Corners/Greendale woods, what with there being what he saw as a lack of such a dining option on that side of town. It might just work, I remember saying and, to this day, Joey Girard's is doing fine, thank you, because more often than not, Joe had an eye for what a community had a hankering for, for a trend that was just getting steam. That said, he'd tell me his true passion wasn't running a restaurant but instead designing them–his experiences taught him how things needed to be, where space was needed and how traffic flowed. Joe would say that, in another life, he would've been fine being a restaurant archetect who'd throw the owner the keys because, as he put it, “running them is sort of hard.”
Joe Bartolotta make it look easy. Over and over and over again. It's our good fortune he chose to do cusine instead of blue prints.
To think of all that life, all of those ideas, all of that energy being gone is too sad to wrap one's head around. Then again, the fact that we got to bask in what Joe brought to the community every day, and that it lives on even after he's gone, gives comfort in these grey days without him.
Not to mention the smile I get when I think of the picture of his kidney.