Driven by a lifelong passion for Italian food
Chef Vincenzo Betulia’s authentic and meticulously crafted rustic Italian fare at his namesake restaurants, Osteria Tulia and Bar Tulia, have sent up a flare to the mainstream culinary world that Naples is a place to watch. Read on to find out more about Chef Betulia and what makes his food so good and so popular.
Q: What is your culinary background?
A: After growing up in an Italian household and eating common food of southern Italy, becoming a chef was not a hard decision for me. I have worked in the business for 27 years now, and have always had a drive and an endless passion to cook Italian cuisine and educate the public on the Italian kitchen and culture, which go very much hand in hand.
The food at Osteria Tulia is like you get in Italy, not like Olive Garden. The majority of my food style was shaped by Paul Bartolotta at Spiaggia in Chicago and also at his restaurants in Milwaukee, Wis. I have worked side by side with many of today’s great chefs, including Michael White (Marea, New York City) Mark Mendez (Vera, Chicago) Michael Carlson (Schwa, Chicago) Mark Weber (Lake Park Bistro, Milwaukee) and Rhys Lewis (American Club in Kohler, Wis.).
Q: How were you inspired to become a chef?
A: My grandmother lived with us and I watched her cooking 24/7, everything from pizza doughs, pastries and pastas to canning garden vegetables in the fall so we could eat tomatoes in February. I got a job with my father’s childhood friend who was a chef in a mom-and-pop restaurant on the east side of Milwaukee. I washed dishes and made salads.
Then I went to San Francisco and met a guy at my cousin’s restaurant who was attending the California Culinary Academy. Culinary school became an option after high school graduation. On my return to Milwaukee, I got a job with Bartolotta and the rest is history. Working with Paul and Joe Bartolotta was quite inspiring.
Q: What brought you to Naples?
A: My girlfriend broke up with me. I was crushed, so I moved. Naples has such a strong Midwest connection — I love the sun and hot weather and I saw an opportunity down here where I could do my food and educate a well-traveled public. The ultimate compliment for me is when my guests tell me they just returned from Italy and my food is better.
Q: Please tell us about your time in Milwaukee and you relationship with Paul Bartolotta and Michael White.
A: Paul was a mentor to me. He talked me out of going to the Culinary Institute of America and to work at Spiaggia instead. I worked in both the café and the dining room. As a young cook just out of high school, I was working 80-90 hours a week getting paid $6.25 per hour and I had no time to enjoy the city. By then Paul was at celebrity status, so we did many functions where I met and cooked next to great chefs like Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Emeril Lagasse. I quickly turned into a cooking monster, always behind the eight ball and being pushed to the “culinary edge of no return,” where most cooks give up and jump. I didn’t.
Another young cook who didn’t jump was Michael White. I met him after his first return to Spiaggia from Italy … We became friends, just two guys out of Wisconsin cooking like crazy men for an amazing restaurant that shaped us to be who we are today.
Q: You’re known for meticulous sourcing of ingredients for both Bar Tulia and Osteria Tulia. Which ingredients do you insist must be imported? Which do you insist must be local?
A: The Italian staples are imported. Olive oil we direct import from the region of Puglia, balsamic vinegar and saba from Modena, San Marzano tomatoes for the sauces are imported as well, along with all the cheeses. We import lots of black and white truffles only from Italy with government stamped documentation.
For the local fare we bring in, we start with relationships with farmers and growers … Oakes Farms, Collier Family Farms, Calusa Farms, Harpke family farms for vegetables and micro greens. Fresh-caught fish is from the Keys, and local beef from Jackman Ranch.
Q: Why did you feel the need to add a gastropub to a fine dining establishment?
A: It was inspired by the physical space — a long narrow room with not a whole lot of room … Bar Tulia (is where) one can dine as much as they want, whether small bites or a full meal. That was the intention of the restaurant: casual, full of energy, edgy, warm and inviting.
Q: Your restaurants are jam-packed this time of year. What is tourist season like for your and your employees?
A: We’re very fortunate and thankful to be busy all year long. Winter season comes hard and heavy, but we all work as a team to please everyone. I’m proud to say that we grind it out all year long. My employees don’t see a major drop in business or personal income in the off-season.
Q: What do you find challenging?
A: Finding employees with passion. Also, getting people to understand what is in your head and hands and getting them to recreate it.
Q: Who or what are your greatest culinary influences?
A: My grandmother, Paul Bartolotta, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Thomas Keller, Giorgio Locatelli, Gualtiero Marchese, Massimo Bottura, Valentino Marcattilli … There are too many to mention.
Q: What has been one of your favorite culinary experiences?
A: Eating my way through Italy and seeing how the different regions’ kitchens and cuisines vary so much from one another. France is a close second.
Q: What are your favorite culinary resources (books, blogs, etc.)? How do you keep your dishes relevant?
A: I don’t rely on books or blogs much. I observe culinary trends, like which ingredient is hip and designing around it, seeing what other chefs are up to in their worlds and really just going out to eat. That is where the true learning experience and inspiration is found. ¦