How the Proprietor of Abbracci has Kept his Restaurant Going Strong for 30 Years
By J.P. Faber
It is 10:30 a.m. and the crew at Abbracci’s is moving in a kind of ballet of preparation. The doors of the otherwise windowless restaurant are wide open, letting the morning breeze freshen the interior while the wait staff – still in shirt sleeves or even undershirts before they put their uniforms on when the AC kicks in – is busy cleaning and prepping. One is vacuuming. Another is dragging the valet stand out front. Still another is making sure that every single glass on the tables is shiny and polished.
In a little over an hour the lunch crowd at Abbracci will arrive, and there will not be an empty table. The diners who show up will be a who’s who of local power brokers and people of influence, not just from Coral Gables, but from downtown Miami and beyond. There will be mayors and bankers and successful entrepreneurs, doctors and attorneys and developers. There will be important persons of social status, even celebrities.
All of them will be attended to by a swarm of solicitous waiters. All of them will be served reliably pleasing Italian food. And all them will be greeted by the proprietor, Nino Pernetti. And, unless it’s the first time they have come to the restaurant, Pernetti will know every one of them by name. Literally. Nino Pernetti is something of a legend in Coral Gables. As of this July, he will have completed a 30-year run at the helm of a highly successful restaurant in a city of fine dining that can be as fickle as it is discerning in its tastes. How he has done so is a compliment to his fastidious and charming personality, his phenomenal memory of every client’s name and his profound understanding of how to run a fine dining establishment. As patron Willy Bermello puts it (with no bias), “This is the best restaurant in the world.”
Birth of a Restaurateur
A great many ingredients go into creating a great restaurant, everything from location and décor to service and freshness of food. It is a science, to be sure, but also a craft. Pernetti received decades of training in the hospitality industry before setting up in Coral Gables. As he details in his winsome 2008 book, Nino Pernetti’s Caffe Abbracci Cookbook: His Life Story and Travels Around the World, he began his career in hospitality serving espressos in the summertime to customers at the Locanda Gemma café in tiny Limone, Lake Garda, Italy. At 15 he went to hotel school, served his “residency” at the Grand Hotel Bristol in Merano, and never looked back.
Pernetti pursued a career with Intercontinental Hotels and the Sheraton chain, in a series of upward management moves that took him literally around the world, to high-end properties in Germany, England, the Bahamas, Afghanistan, Zambia, South Korea, Mexico, Malaysia, Turkey and others. Just one example: In 1976, at the age of 31, he was director of food and beverage services at the 650-room Intercontinental Tamanaco Hotel in Caracas, with 400 employees in his department. Along the way he learned seven languages.
That dizzying rise ultimately landed Pernetti in Miami in 1981, where he became a vice president of operations for the Holiday Inn corporation, in charge of its hotels in the Caribbean, Central and South America. “I did this for four years, and I was having lunch one day with an architect, a friend of mine. I said I didn’t like the hotel business, that you have to travel all the time, you can’t have friends, you can’t even plant flowers at home because you’re out 25 days [of the month].”
His friend suggested they partner to open a restaurant, the capital coming from the architect and the sweat coming from Pernetti. That was Café Baci (Italian for kiss) on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, which became an overnight success in 1985. What it lacked, however, was enough square footage to be granted a liquor license. So Pernetti and partner sold Baci, and Nino reinvested into what is now Caffé Abbracci (Italian for hugs), in 1989.
At the time, Ocean Drive had yet to be reinvented, and Caffé Abbracci was then among the few sophisticated dining options of greater Miami. Pernetti’s place became a celebrity magnet, attracting clients ranging from Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Mario Andretti to Antonio Banderas, Joe Montana and Elie Wiesel – basically the A-listers visiting South Florida. “South Beach didn’t exist; we were the first afluent restaurant that was here. I was written up in any number of publications, Food & Wine several times, Gourmet magazine, Esquire….”
Political heavyweights also came to Abbracci to eat – presidents Bush I, Clinton and Obama, to name three – partly due to its reputation for good food, but also, admits Pernetti, because the restaurant was easy to secure. “Why did they pick us? Reputation. Serious, good food, and the best service. Not having windows helps a lot, too, and it’s easy to close down the street [Aragon Avenue].” While the celebrity crowds have since drifted to South Beach, Pernetti still gets visits from the likes of Matt Damon and politicians like former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. And he never forgets his seemingly endless encounters with special guests. Like the time Robin Williams came in and was speaking fake, rapid Italian. “He was talking away, like it was Italian, and I didn’t understand. It was perfect, but I said, ‘Robin, I’m Italian, I don’t understand.’ He was just mimicking. He’s such an excellent mimicker.”
Pernetti has also had his push backs, like when he balked at Brad Pitt’s suggestion that he make him some meatballs, or when he told Matt Damon, who asked for pizza the first time he came in, that he could order delivery from Dominoes. But outside of these momentary slivers of culinary pride, Pernetti has been the gracious host incarnate, with a shamelessly loyal clientele to show for it. As he writes in his book, “I wanted everyone who came into Café Abbracci to feel like they had walked into my home.”
What Makes Pernetti Tick
Nino Pernetti is now 74 but looks like he is 50. He has preternaturally young looks, something he ascribes to his diet (“I eat the food here”), to his regimen of regular exercise (“I jog or play tennis six times a week”) and to a perpetual curiosity that has turned him into a fanatical reader (“The brain is like a muscle that needs to be used”). He has two daughters, now 15 (Katerina) and 20 (Tatiana), and he spends as much time as possible with them. He is a man who clearly enjoys life.
In talking about his restaurant’s success, he attributes some of it to the help he’s had from his team – his general manager, Loris Curzio, and his day manager, Eduardo Gutierrez, have both been with him for 30 years, and many on the wait staff go back decades. He also ascribes it to the food, which he calls “simple Italian comfort food,” though it is more inventive than this sounds, in a menu that is regularly updated.
But nothing compares to the presence of Nino, and the tone he sets for Abbracci. It is his belief that you can only run one restaurant well, because it needs your presence. “I have had so many offers to open a restaurant, left and right. Twenty years ago, people in Las Vegas wanted me to open in one of the hotels. I declined because I had to be there 30 hours a month… If you want to do a good business, then just one restaurant!”
That sense of being there also translate to the community at large, where Pernetti has volunteered for decades in such organizations as Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Miami Opera, the Vizcaya Foundation and the Jackson Memorial Foundation.
He was also knighted three years ago by the Italian government for promoting Italy abroad (so you may now address him as Sir Nino). “A restaurant is not only about serving food. It has to be a presence in the community. I make myself visible,” he says.
And then there is Pernetti’s virtually eidetic memory for the names of his customers. “I am lucky or blessed for this business. I know the names,” he says, sitting at his table in the back of the restaurant, looking across the room. At one table sits Tom Murphy, the developer whose building on the UM campus just won the 2018 Best Building of the Year Award. At another table is Rodney Barreto, now Chair of the Super Bowl Committee. At another is Able Iglesias, the Gables banker just named to the Federal Reserve board for Miami. “You notice when the waiters come around and approach me, I tell them very quick the name of each one [customer], so they can be addressed by their names. Memory is a must.”
A restaurant is not only about serving food. It has to be a presence in the community. I make myself visible, it’s important…Nino Pernetti on his commitment to the Coral Gables Community
Pernetti says his memory for names is as much a trained skill as an inherent talent. “I’ve run about eight marathons in my life, and you can’t go out suddenly if you are not trained. So, the muscle I have here [he touches his forehead], it concentrates all the time. You tell me the name, I store it, I inventory it, I think it, and I see it. I concentrate and take the time to feed my mind and remember. That is why I know the name of everybody. It’s part of Abbracci’s talent, if I can call it that…. Probably if you give me your phone number I’ll forget it. But if you tell me your name, I make sure I know it – and what you like and what you eat and all about you.”
The loyalty which that kind of welcome engenders produces clients like Anthony Villamil, the CEO of the Gables-based Washington Economics Group, who is well into his second decade as a customer. He comes to Abbracci for business meetings during the day, and with family at night. “Abbracci is our second home in many ways,” says Villamil, who has celebrated birthdays and even weddings here. “Nino takes the extra care to make sure you feel at home. And the quality of the food is excellent.”
Ah, yes, the food. If you ask Nino’s day manager Eduardo why he likes working for Pernetti, he’ll tell you, “Because Nino is a gentleman, and a good boss. Sometimes he is strict, because he has to be, but he’s always on top of the people, since the first.” But ask him why the restaurant is a success, and he’ll tell you, “Because he [Pernetti] always has to check all of the dishes as they come out. Food is first. Then, of course, service, but food first.”
Though he has collected recipes all his life (and naturally has plenty from his extended family in Italy), Pernetti is modest about the food at Abbracci.
“I’m from the north of Italy. There is a myth about food coming from the north, south, east or west. The truth is that good food is good food. You blend what people like the most,” he says. “What we serve is comfort food, but still good food. At the end of the day, the stomach responds to good food. Like love. The idea is to never let you down. That’s what leads to longevity in love or in food.”
Pernetti himself eats lightly, at least at lunch, usually some fish and vegetables, a sip of prosecco, some berries in a martini glass and maybe an espresso – though he is not averse to a little pasta now and then. “Pasta is good for talking,” he says. He maintains a trim figure and maintains compulsive habits.
He reads the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald every day for precisely one hour, in case there is an item about one of his patrons (more likely than you would think). He arrives at Abbracci at precisely 10:30 a.m. and stays there until 3 p.m. He then returns at 7 p.m. and stays for a couple of hours, sometimes longer.
“I am extremely disciplined on time,” says Pernetti. “In my house I must have 10 clocks, one in the closet, one in the bathroom, one in the hallway. I have seven French clocks, and they all chime at the same time. Every Sunday I have to rewind them and adjust them.” One reason for his methodical discipline of time is so that Pernetti can devote at least two hours a day to what he calls his addiction: reading. He maintains a large library and alternates between biographies and fiction.
“I have thousands of books, I mix them up, but curiosity drives me all the time,” he says. “If I don’t read every day for at least two hours I feel like I am missing something. It’s my medicine, or my drug, and I need at least two hours a day.” Among his recent reads are biographies of Mao Tze Tung and Thomas Jefferson, and among his favorite authors of fiction Nabakov and Grisham. He is currently reading a biography of Pope Pius IX and his troubles in the mid 1800s, and was thrilled when he recognized a reference to the Roman philosopher and orator Cicero. “The common reader would not know the reference. But I did, having read his book many years ago. When I read that in a passage it was a moment of joy.”
While reading is his guilty pleasure – Pernetti looks forward to the exquisite moment when he gets to pick his next book from among his unread – he also attributes his ability to converse with anyone to the storehouse of intelligence he’s derived from reading. “Probably this is my fountain of youth. It makes me feel so rich in knowledge. I can sit here with you, or the president, or the bus boy, and I will engage you at the level of anyone.”
Engagement. Perhaps that is what best describes Pernetti’s success. Abbracci feels engaged with its customers and its community, and visa-versa.
“Nino is an icon, and Abracci is part of the fabric of Coral Gables,” says Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli. “And the food is not bad, either.”