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Prima Pastabilities

What a difference a decade makes. In 1993 Café Prima Pasta was a 28-seat noodle joint in a dilapidated mid-Miami Beach neighborhood, and owner Gerardo Cea was a first-time restaurateur who seemed to be capitalizing on the success of his cousin-in-law Eloy Roy, who had recently made a splash with...
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What a difference a decade makes.

In 1993 Café Prima Pasta was a 28-seat noodle joint in a dilapidated mid-Miami Beach neighborhood, and owner Gerardo Cea was a first-time restaurateur who seemed to be capitalizing on the success of his cousin-in-law Eloy Roy, who had recently made a splash with the similarly themed Oggi Café.

Ten years later, Café Prima Pasta is a 140-seat, family-run restaurant that has undergone multiple upgrades, and Gerry Cea is the pioneer who helped put finely prepared Argentine-Italian cuisine into critical focus -- and, incidentally, launch the revitalization of the trendy dining area now known as North Beach.

An Argentine immigrant, Cea first set foot in Miami in 1985 at the age of nineteen, but quickly departed for New York, where he had relatives. "Nobody talked about Miami then [as a dining destination]," he says. "Miami was where you went to retire." In New York, Cea quickly learned to call himself Gerry rather than Gerardo, picking up elements of American culture from a cousin who liked to show him the wilder side of the five boroughs. After working in the Northeast restaurant industry and partying in the club scene there for several years, Cea found himself drawn back to Miami. "When I first got here in '85, I took a picture of myself on Ocean Drive. I always knew I wanted to come back and run a restaurant."

Rather than head to burgeoning Ocean Drive, however, the young Cea took his business ideas to a decidedly strange site: a single-story building on 71st Street that housed a doctor's practice, a real estate firm, and an empty third office. By the time Cea was 26, that space, which was the first he viewed for his potential restaurant, had become the original incarnation of Café Prima Pasta. Despite its seating limitations and Cea's admitted inexperience in running the front of the house, the eatery became an instant success with residents and critics alike.

Many of the elements that made Café Prima Pasta so likable then are still in play today. Cea's father Arturo is still executive chef, his mother Carla pastry chef, as they have been since the café's inception. The menu-billed description of the carpaccio di manzo, thinly sliced fillet garnished with olive oil, lemon, and Parmesan cheese, as being "the best in the world" is just as true now as it was then. The homemade pastas, ranging from tender gnocchi to squid ink linguine topped with creamy lobster sauce and a jumble of succulent seafood, continue to be the biggest attraction, along with the home-baked crusty rolls and simply dressed salads.

As a matter of fact, even in this era of Atkins, Café Prima Pasta remains vital, a popular gathering spot for families every night of the week and a cool hangout for singles on the weekends. Part of that has to do with not just keeping up appearances, but improving upon them. Over the years, as first the physician and then the realtor departed the premises, Cea bought up the building. Now the family is its sole owner, and the erstwhile one-room restaurant has several dining rooms and a terrace. Recently Cea renovated the entire face of the building, ripped out the plumbing, and installed brand-new bathrooms and a sparkling kitchen, plus lighting fixtures and furniture in the main areas that he sources from antiques and collectibles dealers from around the city. The original room is now occupied by a stunning copper and wood bar that has to be meticulously cleaned daily. "The guy who installed me told me it would be difficult. And it is," Cea admits. "But I think it's worth it."

The apparent triumphs have not been as easily gained as it sounds, however. Over the span of the decade, Cea has involved himself in several ventures that have taken more than they have given back. An identical sibling to Prima Pasta, Café Primola, down to the dark green walls and framed caricatures that decorated the North Beach site, failed to maintain its initial popularity in North Miami. And Cea's wife Gisela's venture, Faccia Café, never really attracted a following, despite Cea's concerted marketing effort to get critics on the premises.

Then in 1996, Cea got in a public spat with Oggi owner Roy, saying that Roy, who used to supply Prima Pasta with raviolis and the like, cut him off in retaliation for befriending competing Italian restaurants such as Café Ragazzi. Forced to make his own noodles, Cea stopped referring customers to Oggi. Arturo Cea proved pretty good at making his own dough, though, and Gerry Cea says the families have since reconciled.

Finally there was Spice Resto-Lounge, the Italian-Asian restaurant-nightclub venture that opened in 2000 and closed down a year or two later. Though it was a pet project for club music lover Cea, who now plays his vast collection of CDs from the world over at Café Prima Pasta, he says, "I cried when Spice opened. What was supposed to cost us $150,000 came to $300,000. I had to be there all night, after being at Prima Pasta all day, because everybody would be trying to cheat. I couldn't trust my manager. I never saw my wife or son. The day I sold it, I cried again -- in happiness."

All told Cea took three employees from Spice back to Prima Pasta, where the staff is like a family. He also took a vow. "I decided to concentrate on Café Prima Pasta only. I have no partners. I'm the one who handles everything," he says. (Brother Fabian helps manage the house.) Despite the responsibility, Cea finds a way to remain playful, maintaining friendships with musicians such as Lenny Kravitz, whose signed guitar hangs on a wall, and collecting electric guitars himself. And of course, spending all day, every day within the embrace of his family.

Ten years ago, Cea was an upstart with long hair, an attitude, and ambition. Today his hair is closely cropped, his mien more embraceable, his aspirations in clear sight. He puts his personal changes down to being happier and having a stronger vision of self. "Money is not the point," he emphasizes. "The point is to organize your life and not go crazy."

What a difference a decade makes, indeed.

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