American dream
Exclusive interview
The impressive story of the owner of the Miami restaurant where the Messis feel at home
Argentine Gerardo Cea founded Prima Pasta 30 years ago and today he is renown. In an exclusive dialogue with LPO, he talks about his time as an illegal immigrant, his friendship with musicians from the United States and the secret of his success.

The story of the Argentinian Gerardo "Gerry" Cea is incredible: 30 years of success in Miami with his Italian cuisine restaurant Prima Pasta. He came to the United States to work with his family, started as a waiter in New York and moved to Miami, where he created a place that is visited by a lot of celebrities and has Lionel Messi among its regulars for more than a decade. Although today he is an established man who plays the guitar with Lenny Kravitz and zaps with Rene from Calle 13, Cea started from the bottom. He spent six years as a legal immigrant until he could breathe serene.

You arrived with your parents, Arturo and Carla, 30 years ago. What did they say to you when you told them "we are going to live in the United States"?

Since my siblings had already married and my brother had a daughter, they said "no, the little boy can't go alone." I felt like that was what they always did, giving themselves over to an idea that I had deep inside. My parents had been working in the United States for a year (1974-1975) and they were able to buy the apartment where we lived as children. And that was the same apartment they sold so they could help me and come here together looking for the American dream. I talk about them a lot, because the force of love and guilt was so great that it led them to sell the only thing they had.

What was Miami like when you arrived?

Miami was a disaster: there were a lot of people for six months and no one the other six months. On a Saturday, you walked on the street and there was no one who honked.

It was another Miami.

Another Miami. There were no people, it was summer and no one came here. I felt a lot of pressure because we were illegal, the money from the apartment had run out and that's when this madness began inside me, that I had to do something to be able to get ahead. It took me six years to be able to find this place.

Empezó con una parrilla a la calle en Miami y se convirtió en el empresario argentino más importante de Florida

At that moment, did they tell you that they would accompany you or did they tell you that you were crazy?

They told me why, what is your plan, what are we going to do? And I only answered them: I want to go to the United States, I want to see what I see in the movies. At first they hesitated a little bit and then they told me come on: they sold everything, got a loan and we came.

What do they say to you today, 30 years later?

They always have incredible gratitude for everything I try to do to keep this place as strong and alive as possible. It's been 30 years and we always keep it up. They are happy, they come very often, my dad is still very active, he comes to the kitchen, when I see a problem that I can't fix, I tell him pa, look at this focaccia. And he says, but what are you doing, he goes to the kitchen and shows everyone. He goes to the kitchen and fixes everything. My mom too, she always took care of everything that is bread, salads and dessert. She worked very hard at Christopher Walken's bakery. Walken's mother had a bakery a block from where we lived in New York when we arrived, and between 1985 and 1987 she went to work at five in the morning.

The impressive story of the owner of the Miami restaurant where the Messis feel at home

You worked too.

I got a job on the first day in a super important restaurant with the lowest position in the room, which was the bus boy. It was a restaurant frequented at night by the mafia and Paul Castellano - I saw him dead - was constantly there.

That made you leave New York.

Yes. There was great respect. After that, I couldn't find a job anywhere. I went back home and told them "let's go to Miami, because we're never going to achieve anything here. This is very overcrowded", and we had no money.

When we arrived, Miami was a disaster because there were a lot of people for six months and no one the other six months. On a Saturday, you walked on the street and there no one honked.

How are New York and Miami different for Latinos?

New York taught me how to walk the streets, I learned from the bad so I could do the good. I always paid a lot of attention not only to the good but also to the bad. Many times I thought "Look, this is how he talks, or how he greets a customer, look at how he treats employees." Everything that happens at Prima Pasta is what I always for me.

New York is more unfriendly.

Exactly, for a person who started from scratch, at that time it was very expensive and everything collapsed. How could I rent a place if everything cost a fortune? Here in Miami the opportunities were many.

The impressive story of the owner of the Miami restaurant where the Messis feel at home

You once said that you realized that money was not the main thing to grow in the United States. When did you realize it?

There were promises and money, but there were also many spectacular undertakings and everything was for the person who put up the money and very little for the worker And I said no, this is not the way. It's not the money, it is the head and it is the heart.

I always paid a lot of attention not only to the good but also to the bad. Many times I thought ‘look, this is how he talks, or how he greets a customer, look at how he treats employees.' Everything that happens at Prima Pasta is what I always wanted to happen to me.

How did you manage to open Prima Pasta?

I was a waiter. I had a convertible car that was so old that the roof didn't close. If it rained, I would get wet so I always had extra clothes to go to work. One day I was driving down Alton Road, going to Coral Gables to work, and at the traffic light I saw Barry Gibb, the singer of the Bee Gees, in a convertible Rolls Royce. I had an idea, and I said: "Barry, I have a project to open an Italian restaurant with black and white photos, I would love them to be of the Bee Gees. Shall we do it together?" "Write me a letter," he said and left without giving me the address. I found the address, a house with two large gates, and I left the letter there. They never answered me, but after seven months, I ended up renting the restaurant thanks to a guy who fired me from work because I didn't want to work on weekends. That's where the story began. I only had 8 thousand dollars and they asked 40 thousand for the key, but I told them: I don't have the money, but I do have the experience to do something spectacular with my mother and father. I convinced them. And many times I said: how long did I wait for the investor or the money? As soon as I had the menu, I took it to Barry Gibb's house: I wanted those gates to open. That's how Gibb and his family started coming. Then the other brothers came and laughed a lot. "Barry is stupid," they said. It was very funny.

The impressive story of the owner of the Miami restaurant where the Messis feel at home

They even offered you $6 million to buy the property and the restaurant, but you refused. What would it mean for you to leave Prima Pasta? Is it a matter of money, or is your life?

Prima Pasta is part of my life, but I don't know for how long. Now I'm in the moo, but 30 years have passed and many times I didn't feel like it. So the restaurant goes down. I am the soul of it, and for 20 years I did not want to assume it. In the last 5 years, I learned to not be physically and be super present at the same time. I learned to let it flow and hired many more people, managers, to make sure everyone is happy.

"El sueño americano existe pero tenés que ayudarlo, este país no es un parque temático donde todo fluye"

How has the American dream changed? Is it the same idea - that of when you arrived -, or is it a different one for those who arrive now?

There are many who come to make a few bucks, work for five months and leave, especially the younger ones. The American dream was much stronger before. Now people have so much information that it is not difficult for them to experiment.

It was something that seemed unattainable before.

Of course, in the last 10 years I haven't heard "Wow, the American dream." No. It is lost. And it's very easy not to fight it suddenly, "Oh, I haven't done so well in two or three years, I'm leaving." You don't hear it as much as before. Many people think about how much they can earn in one place or another. But sometimes it's about earning less and being in a place where you can make progress. Many people who I taught everything to wanted to leave, and after a short period of time, they told me "I need to come back." Why do you want to come back? Do you need the money? Go away and don't come back again. I'm not easy with money. But if they tell me "No, because this is a family, and the way you treat us here is unique," well, that's what matters to me.

There are many people who come to make a few bucks, work for five months and leave, especially the younger ones. The American dream was much stronger before. Now it's lost, and it's very easy not to fight it suddenly, ‘Oh, it didn't go so well for me in two or three years, I'm leaving.

How has Miami changed for you?

There is a part that remains the same, for people who come for the first time, arriving on a plane and seeing the water, passing through the bridges and seeing the sea, walking three blocks and being on the beach. That's the same. Then there are the investors, more money, more buildings, number one in the world. It is more expensive, but it is more difficult but there are still many opportunities. There are people who come with a lot of money and end up losing everything. There are people who want to come and open a restaurant in Wynwood or Brickell. Well, pay 30 or 40 thousand dollars for the rent. I tell them, "go to Little Haiti, or go to the worst place, because if you do a good job, people will go and pay 3 thousand for the rent. Sometimes many partners come, I am only one, today I don't pay a rent and it's hard for me.

The impressive story of the owner of the Miami restaurant where the Messis feel at home

How did celebrities start choosing Prima Pasta?

I had already been working with celebrities and we always took great care of the privacy and serenity of the people who come to eat. We took care of the Argentine celebrities who were persecuted by the press. But Michael Jordan also came and ate in peace.

Messi has known the place for more than 10 years, but when he came to sign the contract with Inter he came to eat here because he already knew it.

Yes, before that he had come to play with the Argentine team, or something like that, and he had also come here. It all starts in 2010, or 2011, when Lio came to celebrate his birthday.

Did Jorge call you?

I didn't know anyone. Leo called directly and spoke to a boy. Then they told me that they were coming, that there were 14 people. I asked the boy if they had said a phone number or something, and he said no. And well, luckily we had a little room available. They came and that day was a mess, because I had to leave. And they drove him crazy, there were photos everywhere, but Leo is very happy here. After that, different football players recommended by them began to come. Leo came a total of 5 or 6 times, but his father began to come very often. I also had meetings with the staff. I talked to them and gave them an ultimatum: "I adore you, but if I find out that someone sent a message to let them know that Messi is here and someone is coming here eating... I recommend you enjoy and see him, and say hello, because that is what Prima Pasta is about, giving you peace of mind. The meetings are intense. And that's how it was, they ate, I took him to the back door. And the last time, Lionel already wanted to enter as everyone, through the front door.

The impressive story of the owner of the Miami restaurant where the Messis feel at home

How has Miami changed since Messi is the star?

They went crazy. It was my birthday, the day the contract was signed, and Jorge called me to let me know that six people were coming. Jorge talked to me first, he would come first to see how Leo would get in. After that, we took a photo, we played the drums, we chatted. And when we left there were very few people, people who had gathered because they saw him when he entered. I uploaded photo on Instagram. When I wake up the next day, I found a record of messages, from ESPN to CNN, soccer players who I don't even know where they got my phone number from, Instagrammers. It was a revolution. So I asked myself what did I do? They came, there were cameras everywhere. I spoke to the staff again, no one could enter the restaurant. This family kills me, I got a bit scared.

Soccer in Miami was not that popular before Messi.

Unbelievable. The nice thing is that not only Hispanics were interested, Americans went crazy too. Everyone.

Leo came a total of 5 or 6 times, but his father started coming very often. I also had meetings with the staff. I spoke to them and gave them an ultimatum: if I find out that someone sent a message to let them know that Messi is here and someone comes here eating... because that's what Prima Pasta is about, giving you peace of mind.

What is music for you? It is known that you played with Lenny Kravitz, with Rene from Calle 13.

It's a hobby. And having a guitar and fooling around and saying anything... We ate, talked and fucked more than what I played, because the band started playing here and I grabbed a guitar and fooled around. But many bands have passed, I became friends with many musicians. With my dear friend Rene it's impossible to play, because he doesn't play the guitar, but I have some rhythm, and he does his part. We have fun.

The impressive story of the owner of the Miami restaurant where the Messis feel at home

You were illegal for six years. The United States needs workers but it is not easy to regularize the situation.

With this Biden presidency, it is a tsunami of people entering without papers. 90 or 95% of people who need entering, the worrying thing is the rest. Investors have papers as if nothing had happened, artists too, they give them residency, they make them citizens. Suddenly, millions of people I know come, they're smart, they marry someone, they pay them 10 thousand dollars and they have the papers.

For those who come to work and start from scratch it is different.

I had the papers after being 6 years here. But many people come and work without papers. They save, get the money and get married. They even end up falling in love.

Some people want to come and open a restaurant in Wynwood or Brickell. Well, pay 30 or 40 thousand dollars for the rent. I tell them, ‘Go to Little Haiti, or to the worst place, because if you do a good job, people will go and pay 3 thousand for the rent.

What are the people who work here with you like? How are things going for them, beyond the fact that they may feel very comfortable working here?

They come from all over the world. There is a Russian girl, and Ukrainian boy. People from Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cuba. It's a mix. What Prima Pasta has is that there has been a very stable, consolidated team for 5 years now. They have a lot of experience, these people are trained at a very high level to run this place and then they make a lot of money. A waiter working here, 5 or 6 nights a month, can have 8 thousand dollars, 2 thousand a week, so they care about their work. I have held many meetings to teach them how to buy a property. It doesn't matter if it's something very small, the thing is to buy it. And never have a mortgage on that property, but work to pay for it as soon as possible. Because that is the only tool you will have, no matter what happens, as savings, as income, or even to live there. There are 60 employees, I always try to have more so that no one works more than 5 days.

The impressive story of the owner of the Miami restaurant where the Messis feel at home

Argentinians have a diverse reputation. How do you see those who come to work? Is there a plus that is sought and valued, or is there a prejudice?

Now yes, but there had been a very large group of boastful, arrogant people in Miami and New York. That was changing, disappearing. Because Argentine people have chemistry, grace, some are descendant of European people. Similar to the Italian, who are very shopper, they always tell you some lie and they have nothing.

How would you say the Argentine community is different from others?

The clothes they wear, the way of eating, a certain elegance. What I would like to do is educate the Argentinian who has the very serious problem of using the phone on speaker. Or they talk very loud, it's terrible. I have trained the waiters to show up and silence the speaker. Or people give their kids devices with a very high volume.

There is something that continues to unite you a lot with Argentina.

I have always left everything for an Argentine client. In 2001, with the crisis, I did training with the entire team so that, when an Argentinian came, we had to serve him in a different way so that he would not spend money. If two people came, we told them they could share a dish. And we gave them an appetizer and two bellinis, and dessert. That with everyone. We made a lot of friendships, relationships. At that time, a lot of people came, people with suitcases.

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