Rick Moonen & Paul Bartolotta
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Rick Moonen & Paul Bartolotta

Jim Poris / March 2009

Food Arts presents March 2009 Silver Spoon Awards for sterling performances to Rick Moonen and Paul Bartolotta, two veteran chefs now based in Las Vegas who have made a profound impact on restaurant fish cookery. Moonen, who left a long career in New York City in 2005 to open Rick Moonen's rm seafood at Mandalay Bay, has been a vanguard voice for seafood sustainability and ocean conservation. Bartolotta, who incubated modern Italian cuisine in America at San Domenico in New York City and Spiaggia in Chicago, runs Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in Wynn Las Vegas, express jetting a species-rich haul of just-caught seafood from the Mediterranean—some even alive—to present in very traditional Italian preparations, cheffy embellishments be damned.

Although his career stretches back to the heyday of La Côte Basque and Le Cirque in 1980s New York City, Moonen, 52, gained a culinary identity during his long, acclaimed tenure at Oceana. Moonen was not new to activism, having been one of the lead chefs in activist Jeremy Rifkin's 1992 Pure Food Campaign against genetic engineering of food, when he helped organize the Give Swordfish a Break initiative in 1998 that encouraged chefs to remove the overexploited fish from their menus. The public pressure forced the implementation of international quotas that led to swordfish's recovery to sustainable levels by 2002. For the last six years Moonen has advocated on behalf of Seafood Watch, run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

"Our business is food, so we can't have our heads buried to what's happening," says Moonen. "That said, I'm a chef, and that means cooking to make people happy."

Bartolotta can concur with that sentiment. "People get this," he enthuses about the appreciation for his effort to offer "authenticity, integrity, and quality over quantity." That's borne out by diners' acceptance of his novel pricing program—$15 per 100 grams (about three ounces) of fish. He burns up phone lines to Italy to procure as many as 40 species of seafood on any given day—many rarities beyond their region in Italy—such as ombrina (silver speckled bass), totani (flying squid), mazzancolla (caramote shrimp). And each is prepared according to how "you would find it on hundreds of menus up and down the Italian coast. The less creative I go with the food the better job I do," Bartolotta says.

For Bartolotta—a James Beard Award (Best Chef, Midwest) winner in 1994 who also owns and operates four restaurants with his brother Joe in their hometown of Milwaukee—his current gig is "just one chapter" in a career dedicated to "improving Italian food" in America. "The quintessential trattoria has not been done here yet," notes Bartolotta, 47, hinting at his next project. Moonen, too, is not done. Contagiously optimistic and en­thu­siastic, he's looking to expand and diversify to other markets: "There's a lot I still want to accomplish."