How this windowless Coral Gables restaurant became home to Miami’s heavy hitters

Far away from the South Beach glitz, on a quiet Coral Gables backstreet, is a windowless restaurant with Ferraris and Bentleys parked nightly out front.

Inside you’ll find 30 years of Miami history, stories, politics, celebrities and the keeper of this knowledge, who is inextricable from this place and its success.

Caffe Abbracci turned 30 on July 6, a nearly unheard of run for a restaurant, particularly in South Florida, where the dining scene continues to blossom in a restless city eager to constantly remake itself.

Just inside its doors, waiting to greet you by your first name in one of seven languages, to sit at your table throughout the night and help steer a three-hour, three-dollar-sign meal, is owner Nino Pernetti.

“There is no better music than someone calling you by name,” Pernetti said.

Abbracci is Pernetti. And Pernetti is Abbracci. And he, as much as the Northern Italian cuisine, is why Miami’s power players (including three U.S. presidents) continue to come here to quietly strike deals in hushed library tones, whispers that disappear into the recording studio acoustics.

Pernetti, who turned 74 on July 12, has remodeled the restaurant five times since it opened in 1989 and recently hired a new chef. “This is part of the philosophy. It’s like fashion. You have to change,” he said.

What’s beyond the pink neon sign? For the uninitiated, and for the nostalgic, let’s take a peek behind the curtain.

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A windowless retreat

Nino Pernetti, owner of Caffe Abbracci, celebrates 30 years in the restaurant business in Coral Gables. Here, Pernetti, at left, visits with Rolando Guerreiro, at center, and Lombardo Perez, at right, while they dine at the restaurant on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Al Diaz

To wonder who is on the other side of door at Abbracci on any given night is to indulge a guilty pastime.

Pernetti said when he renovated the building, it was to be the polar opposite of his one-time restaurant, Caffe Baci, a loud, buzzy Coral Gables spot where diners came to see and be seen.

He sold Baci after two years because diners always wanted to eat where he was stationed that night. And he preferred the intimacy of Abbracci.

“When you sit down to dinner, you want to lose the sense of time,” he said. “I want people to come here to dine leisurely. This is ‘dining’ not ‘coming to eat.’ It’s quality time.”

Nearly every inch of walls and ceiling are lined with acoustic panels, so conversations stay intimate. Diners step out of Abbracci like winners leaving a casino, stunned to find daylight.

It can feel like a bunker or safe house. It’s no wonder Pernetti invited his staff to wait out Hurricane Andrew at the restaurant in 1992. (Sixteen members of his original team are still on the payroll.)

It’s the kind of place where no one takes a selfie — and no one has to tell you not to.

Start at the bar

Nino Pernetti, owner of Caffe Abbracci, celebrates 30 years in the restaurant business in Coral Gables on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Al Diaz

Enter Abbracci and Pernetti will ask if you’d like to have a drink before you take your table. (Do it.)

He’ll guide you to a dark wood bar, where walls are wrapped in brown suede, and the ceiling is covered in a vaulted stained glass Pernetti found at an antiques shop outside of his hometown of Venice for the last renovation.

No one will rush you to your table. Stick with something brown with ice in it or a glass of Italian wine and you won’t be disappointed. If you haven’t been in the last few years, you’ll be surprised to find a television in there. Not long ago Pernetti shared ribs and a beer with his oldest daughter at a Flanigan’s and saw the appeal (though he’s more of an Formula One aficionado than a ball-sport fan).

“I was forced by the way of life in America to put a TV in,” he says, shrugging.

The best seat in the house

Waiter Mario Troncoso of Caffe Abbracci, stands by the best table in the house on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. The restaurant is celebrating 30 years in the business in Coral Gables. Al Diaz

Tucked just to the left of the dining room entrance are a pair of tables that Pernetti calls 1A and 1B.

Regulars to Caffe Abbracci will glance to see who is sitting at this power corner, set just a few feet back from the next closest tables in the dining room. There’s enough room for an extra waiter to stand with his back to tables to intercept an autograph seeker or a pundit on his way to accost, say, LeBron James or Sen. Rick Scott. Both were regulars.

And the diner can survey the restaurant’s entire landscape.

“I can make a two-page list of who eats there,” Pernetti said, nodding at the corner.

The late Miami Herald publisher Alvah H. Chapman Jr., Pernetti’s neighbor at the Grove Harbour condos for decades, once said, “You know you have arrived when you get to sit in [developer] Armando Codina’s seat at Caffe Abbracci.”

A change in the menu

For the first time in more than a decade, there’s a new chef in the kitchen.

Antonio Alfaro, an Italian native that Pernetti met in his travels home, took up the challenge of replacing Mauro Bazzanini, a one-time partner who opened the restaurant and executed the menu for most of its three decades. Pernetti brought him on four months ago without telling any of his diners and let Alfaro execute the restaurant’s classics (veal porcini and snapper en pappillote) plus his new dishes.

The menu now features nightly specials such as tagliata short rib, grilled shrimp over celery root and octopus salad.

The decision to part ways was one Pernetti said he had to make “with the head, not with the heart.” Relying on sentimentality, he said, is no way to run a restaurant.

Finally, powder your nose

The ladies room at Caffe Abbracci. The restaurant is celebrating 30 years in the business in Coral Gables on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Al Diaz

A case could be made that the real Old Boys Club at Abbracci is the little boys’ (or little girls’) room.

Pernetti’s sunset pink bathrooms are something he put as much thought into as the rest of the restaurant. The opaque glass door to the ladies powder room is a hand-painted fresco he bought at an antiques store just outside of Florence. Inside, there’s a separate sitting area, with a pair of ottoman’s and a full-length mirror.

“They need a place to discreetly chat together,” Pernetti said.

The men’s room has Venetian stucco domed ceilings over each stall, ice cubes instead of urinal cakes and a massive clock on the wall. It’s the only reminder of time and place. Though anyone dining at Abbracci never loses sight of where they are.

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Details: Caffe Abbracci, 318 Aragon Ave, Miami; 305-441-0700. Open daily for lunch from 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., 6-11 p.m. Sunday-Friday, 6 p.m.-midnight Saturday

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías won the 2018 James Beard award for excellence in covering the food industry. A Miami native, he’s also the author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”