How does a restaurant keep its status as one of Miami's best-loved culinary destinations?
It treats its staff and all who visit the restaurant like family, according to Caffe Abbracci's founder and owner, Nino Pernetti. "I look after my restaurant like it's a 2-year-old toddler," he says.
Sports stars such as LeBron James and Pelé and Hollywood A-listers such as Al Pacino have dined there. Emilio and Gloria Estefan are regular clients, and politicians Rick Scott and Jeb Bush have also been spotted at the eatery. Asked to share amusing stories or dietary quirks about the luminaries who frequent his establishment, Pernetti politely declines to comment, saying only that he wants to keep the restaurant a safe haven for an eclectic crowd. "It's meant to be a spot for regular customers, a constant destination like in Italy, where people come into their favorite eatery every day. Diners have stuck with us over time because they are treated like family."
A native of Lake Garda in the Lombardy region of Italy, Pernetti began his career in the hospitality industry at the age of 13 as a barista in his hometown. The several years he spent working for hotels around the world taught him two things: Miami was where he wanted to live, and dealing with people on a daily basis is what he wanted to do. He borrowed money from a friend and set his sights on Florida.
Pernetti, who turns 74 today, runs Caffe Abbracci with the same two original managers and a loyal staff of 17 longtime employees. He has always rejected the idea of opening a second location because he believes his presence at the restaurant and dedication to the customers have kept the eatery going for 30 years.
"He acts as if he were another employee," manager Eduardo Gutierrez says. "He's here day and night, and if he's gonna be a few minutes late coming in, he calls to let us know."
In the beginning, Pernetti's aim was to bring modern Italian cuisine to Miami by introducing simple ingredients that were rare when the restaurant opened: balsamic vinegar, mozzarella, salumi, and good olive oil for dipping bread. "Back then, the only rice most people knew was the one offered at Chinese restaurants. I was like Christopher Columbus when he voyaged to the Americas — I just kept on sailing," he says. "I took one day at a time and thought short-term."
But guests can still order some of Caffe Abbracci's original items, such as the boccacino
To compete with Miami's steady stream of
Though the vision for his restaurant has remained constant, the city in which it resides has changed dramatically since the late '80s, the restaurateur says. "When I opened it, there was close to nothing going on in Coral Gables. You could play tennis in the middle of the street. Now it's become a metropolis for foodies of all ages."
Though restaurants in Coral Gables have come and gone, Caffe Abbracci remains a constant because of one basic rule, Pernetti says. "Our focus will always be on the food and making sure our customers get good value for their money. A restaurant can be the trendiest place with the splashiest fare, but if the food fails, it won't survive."
As for the next 30 years, Pernetti doesn't anticipate any major changes to his operation or retirement for himself. "I'm happy to come in
Caffe Abbracci. 318 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, 305-441-0700; caffeeabbracci.com.