World's Best Langoustines
It would seem such expectations could never be met. But these Italians, buffed and coppery, the men and the women all showing plenty of chest, are more than appeased. Bartolotta imports around a ton and a half of seafood from their shores every week, and carries specimens of Italian fish that are now hard to find even in Italy. His plan is based on a total commitment to the idea of landing every single thing he ever loved to eat from the waters of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Ionian, Tyrrhenian and Ligurian—and shipping them all here to sate the guilt-free Las Vegas appetite. “Hearing that Paul Bartolotta brings in 2,500 pounds of seafood a week doesn’t immediately set off any alarm bells,” says the noted marine conservationist Carl Safina. “There’s nothing categorically worse about bringing fish from Italy to Las Vegas than bringing it to Chicago or New York or San Francisco. If Bartolotta’s done his due diligence in terms of working with good providers—and he says he has—that’s the important thing.”
It’s a method rooted in thousands of years of imperial history. Kings imported menus like this, whatever the cost, and certain chefs continue in that tradition. Once simple indigenous foods become international luxury commodities, they begin traveling in bulk. They’re flown all around the world, as far from their origins as money will take them. In this sense, national cuisines are incrementally up for sale, to be bought up one ingredient at a time by the highest bidder. Same-day delivery by jet. That’s why a top Las Vegas seafood restaurant such as this one can start tasting as fully Italian as Italy itself. That, and having a chef-proprietor far more concerned with cooking what he really craves than adhering to any earth-friendly, super-slow, season-specific notions of how we’re supposed to eat. Still, as long as there’s only one Paul Bartolotta, Italy won’t be reduced to eating fish sticks. He’s not after all their seafood—just enough of it to make his mark. “I buy a quarter of the market share of Chioggian cuttlefish every week,” says Bartolotta. “I get moleche, these tiny brown soft-shell crabs from the Laguna Veneta in Venice! People from Milan come in here all the time—Milano!—and are like, ‘What the f--k! I can’t even get these at home.’”
While his methods can only flirt with sustainability—“How do I do sustainable here?” asks the chef. “Cactus with a side of sand? Sand with a side of cactus?”—Bartolotta is, in fact, guided by some local principles. It’s just that they’re the local principles of Las Vegas: importing the entire world, recalibrating it by the terms of wish fulfillment and excess, concentrating it all in one place and charging a mint for it. Bartolotta is, in a sense, the ultimate Las Vegas chef: the one most successful at using “food miles” to import the culinary bloodlines of his culture. “If you accept the existence of this place,” says Bartolotta, “you’re accepting the idea that there isn’t a thing you are touching, feeling, seeing or eating that’s from here. But it’s not a bad thing. People who eat at my restaurant want what they can’t get elsewhere. And short of getting on a plane to Capri, this is it.”
The langoustine guy had given Bartolotta his card, and the chef hung onto it like a lifeline. For 12 months following their meeting, Bartolotta called and e-mailed. E-mailed and called. And always the man denied him.
When the two met again at the trade show the next year, the langoustine guy greeted his pursuer with a question: “Are you serious?”
His inquiry was ambiguous. He was asking Bartolotta if he was serious about langoustines. But he was also asking whether Bartolotta was a serious man. To the exporter, seriousness is perhaps the only credential that matters. “We don’t think, ‘Yes, let’s make some money quickly,’” the exporter says. “We think. We see. We don’t care if it’s the president of the United States. We see how serious the other person is. We see if he’s worthy. We see if he understands what we do.”
The island the langoustines come from is completely isolated, left off many maps. People there pride themselves on their extreme patience. Time spent is the only proof of seriousness. Bartolotta asked me not to reveal the actual location of the island, and in fact didn’t even disclose our final destination until I showed up at the airport in Newark, ready to fly. Landing felt like being dropped out of the sky: The island was invisible from the air and seemed not to exist at all until we were actually on it.