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World's Best Langoustines

© Anders Overgaard

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.

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At the show, Bartolotta locked into a conversation about crabs. The vendor wasn’t a typical salesman. He was guarded and calculating, as if he were there to be sold on something rather than do any selling himself. That’s when Bartolotta became distracted by a fleck of pink in the vendor’s tank, zooming through a turbid crab cloud.

“I saw a couple of langoustines in there,” Bartolotta says, “literally two small ones, and it just hit me: This was the guy!”

Bartolotta’s heart rate spiked. He had found his missing piece. “You’re…you’re him!” Bartolotta stammered. A shift to Italian was imminent. It was coming. When Bartolotta gets excited, English won’t suffice. “You’re the guy with the live langoustines!” he said. “The guy with the scampi.”

Bartolotta’s enthusiasm had little effect on the man with the crab tank. He showed no emotion. None. He understood Bartolotta and could have responded in Italian—or seven other languages, for that matter—but chose English instead. “Yes,” he said, rolling his eyes, repeating the obvious. “Yes, those are live langoustines.”

Bartolotta quickly dealt the man his card. The man gave it a glance.

“Las Vegas?” he said, snickering.

This was not the response Bartolotta expected. After nearly four decades in the restaurant business, Paul Bartolotta had won every food award worth winning. But even more important, he had fundamentally shaped the way Americans eat both upscale and rustic Italian foods. He was instrumental in bringing the restaurant San Domenico from Imola, Italy, to New York in 1988, and making it the first Italian kitchen to receive three stars from the New York Times. He helped bring farro, rare strains of Parmigiano and traditional pasta-making instruments into the mainstream American kitchen. He taught some of today’s most decorated Italian chefs. Scott Conant, now running multiple Scarpetta locations, was Bartolotta’s intern. Michael White, now flashing three fat Times stars of his own at Marea, lived with Bartolotta’s parents in Milwaukee back when he was still learning how to sharpen his knives.

None of this mattered to the langoustine guy.

“It’s nice you’re interested,” he told Bartolotta. “But it’s just not possible.”

Bartolotta’s restaurant, just inland from Wynn’s three-acre, laser-lit Lake of Dreams, consists of two floors connected by a grand travertine-marble staircase. It seats 258 and feeds up to 400 customers a night, each of whom spends, on average, $130, and none of whom seem particularly concerned that their entrées have flown thousands of miles to arrive on their plates.

Ristorante di Mare could easily have come across as yet another Vegas knockoff: fun but fake, approximate but lacking, an evening on an ersatz Mediterranean. But what Bartolotta strives for instead is verace. “What’s crude, real, truthful,” he translates. “I didn’t feel the need to drum up some wacko concept just because Steve Wynn asked me to do a restaurant. I’m doing very direct, very simple, low-energy Italian cooking. I’m not even garnishing my plates.”

Which isn’t to say the place doesn’t indulge in its own brand of showmanship. When Bartolotta joins me in one of his outdoor cabanas, he brings with him a 14-species first course—“Seppia, triglia, aquadelle, totani, sciabola”—all of it fried. “Gran fritto misto di mare.” He’s wearing black slacks and a chef’s jacket, his name embroidered in gold. At 49, he’s all shave-and-shine, his skin smooth and unblemished, his shoes freshly polished, his hair slicked back. There’s a chunky silver Breitling on his left wrist and, on his right, six strands of tiny turquoise beads, made by his daughter, Giulia, during a recent sailing trip.

On his way over, Bartolotta stops to talk with every guest he passes. He cozies up to couples, pours wine, signs menus, poses for pictures, kisses cheeks two, three, sometimes four times. But he’s at his peak when schmoozing with the delegations of Italian high rollers who show up nightly expecting to dine here exactly as they do in Positano and Portofino.

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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.

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“Welcome,” said the exporter, waiting in customs, “to the most terrible, beautiful place on the planet.” Four seasons’ worth of weather cycled through the place every half hour. (Locals call the worst of it “die-outside weather.”) Tornadoes touched down just offshore, but nobody stopped fishing. Towns disappeared into fog, then went golden in radiant flashes of subarctic sunlight. Brutal gales, I was told, tossed cars off the mountain roads. Doorways were framed by whalebones. Waterfalls shot up, driven skyward by the wind. There were dozens of them spraying high above the lush and craggy vistas like a special effect (or a Vegas fountain). It all made Middle Earth seem like Middle America. At night the exporter put out the spread: great pyramids of seafood, langoustines and sea urchins, and 40-year-old horse mussels the size of my forearm.

“This,” the exporter said, holding up a langoustine and stripping it of its shell with a swift two-handed twist, “is what you’re here for: the best raw material on earth.” As I ate about 20 of them—raw, boiled, broiled, flash-sautéed in butter and wine, in a broth, raw again with sour cream and onion, their tail meat, their heads, their savory livers—I grew more and more convinced of his claim.

Over dinner, the exporter told us how the island makes no sense beyond its own confines. “Irrational!” he boasted repeatedly. Its geographical otherness, he said, makes transportation difficult. Because of the weather, the place remains perpetually vulnerable to being cut off from the world. And even if it weren’t, that’s how the people there think. Their history tells them they’ll survive on their own. The collective consciousness of the place is such that instant gratification does not exist. If you want something, you wait.

The exporter keeps a low profile on the island but is seemingly connected to everyone there, from the 40 dayboat fishermen who haul his langoustines out of the water in small traps to the chief executive of the national airline (who let us borrow a helicopter for an afternoon) to local high-level diplomats. Once he deems you “serious,” the exporter will tell you how he was, for a time, the single link between his country and Russia. All trade had been suspended, but his langoustines were allowed open passage because he supplies the Russian parliament. The Duma refused to eat inferior crustaceans. The exporter thinks it’s hilarious: “All of Moscow was crying,” he says.

What’s one Las Vegas chef, then, to a man who can bring the seat of Russia to tears?

Bartolotta had no clue, really, whom he was dealing with. But he was dead serious about his scampi and would convey it any way he could. The second year Bartolotta approached the man at the trade show, the exporter rolled up his sleeves and extracted a single, live langoustine from his crab tank. He took the animal apart—peeling off its head, discarding its carapace and claws, detaching a snowy clump of meat from its tail. The chef grabbed the morsel and popped it in his mouth. To Bartolotta, this felt like progress.

He went home that time thinking the deal was done. They just needed to finalize the payment. The exporter was used to getting his money quickly, in cash (the Russians always paid in cash), and had his suspicions about dealing with the labyrinthine accounting methods of a publicly traded American company. Bartolotta promised to get him the money within 30 days of delivery. “Too long,” the exporter said. Bartolotta then got clearance to release the funds within 15 days. The man rejected this schedule, too. Finally, Bartolotta went back to Wynn’s CFO:

“Remember that guy with the langoustines?”

“Yeah. How are they?”

“I don’t have them yet.”

“Paul, you’ve been dealing with this guy forever. What’s it going to take?”

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“I think in order for him to take me seriously, I have to send the money in advance.”

The CFO agreed. Bartolotta wired the man money, a lot of it, in an attempt to call his bluff.

But the stalemate persisted. After more than two years of back-and-forth, and having already deposited a lump sum of cash into the man’s bank account, Bartolotta realized he had never actually asked about cost. When he finally did, he was admonished. “These are expensive,” the exporter said. “They are the most expensive in the world. But they are also the only truly great-quality langoustines on the planet.” Bartolotta, despite wondering if he’d become the mark in a long con, didn’t ask another question about money and decided to cede all control. “I started to figure out the exchange had nothing to do with business,” he says. “It was really a conversation about ideals and ego.”

So Bartolotta sent the man a one-line e-mail: “Please send me the Best Langoustine on the Planet.”

The man replied: “You will receive a shipment Wednesday.”

Wednesday found Bartolotta eagerly waiting. He could all but taste them. Scampi on the grill, scampi sautéed with garlic, translucent slivers of raw scampi dressed with the smallest squeeze of lemon. He could feel Ristorante di Mare becoming even more Italian, more truthful, more verace.

The box arrived that night, and Bartolotta went through all the steps the man had prescribed. He opened it slowly to introduce ambient air at a controlled rate so as not to the rattle the fragile, slumbering langoustines with the kind of quick shift in temperature that would surely kill them. He cut off the bottom foam wall of the box. Carefully he peeled back the layers and layers of insulation. He removed several gel packs, pulling each out with surgical precision. He reminded all the cooks circled around him that these were incredibly sensitive creatures. He held his breath.

And the box was empty. Bartolotta reached for the phone. “Yes, yes, yes, Paul. I know. No langoustines,” said the man. “Don’t worry. You will have them. I need to organize. You need to wait.”

The man asked Bartolotta his local time. Ten-thirty, Bartolotta told him. “Okay,” said the man, “now I know how long it takes from me to Vegas.” He still couldn’t say the city’s name without laughing. “Now I know how to pack the box.”

He set to work calibrating the shipment, making sure he could maintain the right temperature in the box over a known period of time. A couple days after the arrival of the dummy shipment, Bartolotta got a call: His langoustines were finally coming.

When the new box arrived, the chef once again followed the procedures as directed. But again, the box was empty. And the three shipments after that were all empty, too.

“Every time,” says Bartolotta, “the guy was like, ‘Listen, Paul, you need to understand. I am doing what I need to do in order to make sure you one day have live langoustines. You just have to trust me and know I am working on the program.”

The night Paul Bartolotta finally got his langoustines, his dining room was packed. He was mentally prepared for another empty box. “But I cut it open,” he says, “and oh my God! So I called him: ‘I have them!’ And he says, ‘Well, Paul, are they alive or are they dead?’”

They were alive.

“Immediately,” says Bartolotta, “I piled some up on a tray, and they were moving and squirming, and I ran out to the tables, literally ran. I had my customers ordering them right away. They weren’t on the menu, didn’t have a price, but who cares? So we’re grilling them up and getting everyone excited. I remember the color of them, that orangey-pink-red. They were so amazing, and they smelled like the ocean and were getting more and more lively, really waking up. My Italian waiters couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They were like, ‘No way! How did you get these?’ And then I ran the rest down to the tanks and put them in, and all of a sudden they were swimming. I thought, ‘This is going to be easy.’”

The next morning, more than half of them were dead.

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When Bartolotta’s scampi arrive in Vegas, they go straight to the dedicated crustacean room in Wynn’s 65,000-square-foot on-site warehouse. Up to ten boxes of live langoustines end up here every week, usually on Thursdays. The boxes are all packed at the exporter’s hidden-in-plain-sight facility (a dockside front, fake signage and all) on his remote island and driven to the airport over mountains and through subsea tunnels in a refrigerated truck. Then they’re flown to the mainland, where Continental Airlines—which, according to the exporter, “does not show enough respect”—takes them across the ocean to an East Coast airport I’m not allowed to name, and ultimately on to Vegas. The whole trip takes as few as 19 hours or as many as 48, due to weather, air traffic and customs delays. The langoustine man knows precisely how to account for these variables but admits only to packing his langoustines “in a mist.”

After all that flying, the langoustines, cooled to temperatures that reduce their metabolic rates without killing them, go through something like a reanimation process, overseen by Wynn’s staff marine biologist Yasmin Tajik. Opening a box reveals 35 uniformly curled Nephrops tails, arranged in five rows of seven. Each animal has its own rectangular domicile; if they’re not separated, they’ll rip one another apart.

After a year of shipments, Bartolotta and Tajik now boast a 90 percent survival rate, due in large part to the ways in which they’ve learned to prime their tanks to mimic the waters around the island, the uniquely stable marine conditions that make the langoustines there the class of their species.

The exporter doesn’t sell to anyone else in America. Worldwide, he has only 12 clients. Where almost every chef can now get almost every ingredient, this is a rare instance of food exclusivity, an advantage whose logistics Bartolotta plans to keep secret. “I had to do all the work,” he says. “I’m not giving out any addresses.” He’s not even dropping any clues. At Wynn, langoustine boxes are disposed of only after all identifying information is razored off. At a 2009 benefit event in Los Angeles, where Bartolotta’s cooks grilled 12 cases of live specimens, the boxes from the island were all unpacked and discarded, covert-mission-style, on the other side of town, so that the other participating chefs—Nobu Matsuhisa and Thomas Keller among them—couldn’t even see a postal code. “I had to protect my source,” says Bartolotta, grabbing a langoustine in each hand and smiling at their safe arrival, their difficult passage, in a way most people never get to smile at their food.

After he drops the two crustaceans into their tank (each yielding a mere ounce of meat, they’ll sell that night for $20 apiece), Bartolotta’s already onto the next thing. This is Vegas. There has to be a next thing. But with Bartolotta it’s never about a flashy new discovery. It’s about going backward, toward the traditional, by procuring more and more of Italy.

“I’m having the hardest time,” he says, “finding these tiny, tiny, tiny Mediterranean shrimp. Three or four fit on a fingernail.”

His scampi begin to wrestle and pinch.

But the shrimp!

“They’re from Sardegna. They’re amazing. Special. Impossible to get.” Bartolotta gets a distant look in his eye. “I’m starting to wonder,” he says, “whether I can find the right guy.”

Langoustines are on the menu at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare year-round, available alla griglia (grilled), al forno (baked) or al pane (over bread). For reservations, call 702-770-3463.