It’s an ordinary Monday night in North Beach. The parking lot at Abbot Avenue and 71st Street is nearly full. The corner restaurant, Café Prima Pasta, emits an inviting red glow. Past the red awning awaits a warm space blushing with red lanterns and excited chatter. It almost feels like home.
Owner Gerry Cea has been welcoming diners to his humble establishment for 27 years. In honor of the restaurant’s monumental anniversary, Café Prima Pasta is turning back the clock for the next six months and offering many dishes at the restaurant's original 1993 pricing.
Cea sits at a table while swirling a glass of red wine. His ringlets are salt-and-pepper, but his youthful smile makes it easy to imagine him at 26 years old on his restaurant's opening night.
In 1993, Cea had recently lost his job and was looking for his next big break. He had always dreamed of opening his own restaurant. One fateful night, he decided to go to the movies and parked his car in an empty lot a few blocks from the theater. As he was walking, he noticed a small space with a “For Rent” sign. Without hesitation, he called the next day and signed a lease.
“Everything aligned and connected after that,” Cea says. “We opened the doors later that year, and we have been busy every night since then.”
Almost three decades later, his fondest memory of the place remains opening night. “I was so nervous,” he recalls. “We opened the doors at 5 p.m., and two hours later, the place was empty.” He walked outside to put some take-out menus on the cars parked nearby when he noticed something: “I saw all these cars coming to the parking lot, and I just thought the people were going to the movies, but then they turned this way and started coming to the restaurant.”
That night, he says, he was expecting to serve about 20 people. There were 48.
“Seeing all those people come in and enjoy our food was the greatest feeling ever,” Cea says.
Throughout the years, the restaurant has transformed from an intimate 28-seat space to a 140-seater. Cea bought the building in 2000.
Photos hang on every wall space available. It’s almost like perusing someone’s old yearbook — that is, if you went to high school with a bunch of future celebrities. Many are pictures of famous visitors who have passed through Café Prima Pasta; others are signed head shots from satisfied customers; but most are just part of the decor.
Before he opened Prima Pasta, Cea frequented News Cafe on Ocean Drive, where he would think up plans for his restaurant. “One night, I was with a friend and we saw this huge book of black-and-white pictures of musicians. I really loved the book, but it was around $70 and I was broke.” After he left, his friend ran back inside and bought the book for him. “Here you go,” he told Cea, “for your future restaurant. Maybe you can hang up some pictures.” And that’s exactly what he did.
“When I opened the place, I went out and bought some frames and cut out the pictures from the book and hung them on the walls,” Cea says. He never would have imagined that through the years, so many of those celebrity faces on his walls would one day visit his restaurant.
Prima Pasta’s first celebrity guest was Madonna, who stopped by one week after the spot had opened. Two years later, Lenny Kravitz showed up. Cea recognized the rock star and ripped the framed photo of Kravitz off the wall and asked him to sign it. That photo still hangs over the bar.
Though Cea's restaurant specializes in Italian cuisine, he and his immediate family are originally from Argentina, but his grandparents are Italian.
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“When I came to the States in 1985, I started working in an Italian restaurant, and I learned so much,” Cea says as he looks around and smiles. The sound of cutlery clinking on plates fills the space. “I had the idea of opening my own Italian restaurant, and I knew that when I did, I couldn’t make any mistakes... Like other Italian restaurants all over the world, if you do it right, it works.”
Twenty-seven years later, Cea has proven to do things right with Café Prima Pasta.
In celebration of its anniversary, the restaurant is offering a late-night happy hour and dinner specials at 1993 prices now through June 2020. From 10:30 to 11:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. to midnight on weekends, select dishes cost only $12.95, including fiocchi rapera, eggplant parmigiana, meatballs, and fried calamari. Merry Malbec will be available for $10.26 a bottle, and during the regular 5-to-6 happy hour, guests can enjoy rosé sangria for $10.26 a pitcher.
Café Prima Pasta. 414 71st St, Miami Beach; cafeprimapasta.com.