World's Best Langoustines
How the greatest langoustines on the planet traveled from a mysterious island in a faraway sea to the haute tables of Las Vegas.
The first time Paul Bartolotta tried to buy the langoustines, he was sized up, laughed at and quickly dismissed. It didn’t make sense: He was a respected American chef, a leading authority on Italian regional cooking, a particularly informed consumer of European seafood and a man with Steve Wynn’s checkbook at his disposal. Bartolotta always had a way of getting the ingredients he wanted, no matter how specialized, distant or difficult to wrangle. And he was at a trade show, was he not? Commerce being the entire point. One came here to sample, inspect and shake hands. To close deals and set ship dates. A predictable thrum of supply and demand. That’s how it goes—in almost every case but this one.
By the fall of 2006, the year-old Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Las Vegas was already importing a ton of fresh catch every week: 2,000 pounds of European seafood that reflected both the madness and the genius of the restaurant’s Italian-seaside menu. Everything on it had been meticulously sourced, and the quality was unprecedented, as if the fish markets of Milan and Fiumicino had been annexed to the Mojave Desert. Bartolotta relied on a network of suppliers 30 years in the making, one he’d been patching together since he was 19, when he left Milwaukee to work in the kitchens of Italy. His vendors constantly stood trial. “I’m intense with them,” says Bartolotta. “They need to know I won’t settle. If it’s not beautiful, it’s going back. There has to be mutually agreed-upon passion and trust. All my fish guys hear the same speech: If I ever find out they’ve cheated me, I can’t deal with them ever again.”
Despite the logistical complexity, Bartolotta (that’s bar-toe-low-ta—the o’s long, round, exclamatory) was getting almost everything he sought. His octopus came from the reefs of Liguria. The Washington State clams he found tasted precisely like the Amalfi Coast’s small, sweet vongole veraci. He insisted on rombo chiodato, or nailhead turbot, the best kind of rombo there is. Nothing else would do.
But one key item was missing. Those langoustines: Nephrops norvegicus, crustacean jewels of Sicily, of the Veneto, of Le Marche; a seaside staple up and down the entire Boot, really, where anyone in the know simply splits them, grills them and eats them with a splash of lemon and a slick of olive oil. Bartolotta just couldn’t find langoustines that made him happy. The Scottish ones tasted polluted; the Italian ones had lost their luster; the French ones evoked only indifference. Nowhere could Bartolotta find the desired brightness or firmness, and not a single langoustine he sampled hit the proper yin-yang of salty and sweet. He soon became possessed. He talked about langoustines with everyone, read everything about them, searched exhaustively for a way to bring the shellfish he remembered from his time in Italy to his 11,000-square-foot, $20 million–plus restaurant on the Strip. To Bartolotta, it all felt perfectly natural.
The challenge of importing live langoustines is mainly chemical. Unlike their hardy lobster cousins, langoustines are unable to live outside ideal conditions for long, and the moment they start dying, their flesh begins to autoconsume, turning—through a naturally occurring feature of the spoilage process called melanosis—from the most supple of white meats to the most black, mealy and rotten. The majority of langoustines served in America are not shipped live. To keep them from decomposing, they’re treated—dipped in the preservative sodium metabisulfite, which is also an agent used in tree stump removal—and flash-frozen beneath multiple layers of sprayed-on ice. To Bartolotta, they taste completely off. “They need to go from live to the grill every single night,” he says. “That’s the only way you can really know what they taste like. But getting langoustines to the grill in Las Vegas, alive, on a daily basis, is no easy thing. It’s actually unheard-of anywhere.”
A couple of Italian exporters who’d heard Bartolotta complain about his lacking supply casually suggested he keep an eye out for “the one real langoustine guy” at an upcoming trade show. A name was never offered, and no base of operations was ever mentioned. The particulars were shrouded in a kind of traders’ mythology—a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. To Bartolotta, the scenario seemed about as plausible as coming across a legitimate supply of Loch Ness Monster caviar. Still, he was curious.