Steven Perricone has been in the restaurant business for almost 40 years. He moved from New York to Miami more than two decades ago, and has watched Brickell transform from a quiet, residential community full of single-family homes to an area bursting with residents, businesses, and tourists.
While his neighborhood changes around him, Perricone is committed to keeping his restaurant authentic. From its name to its menu, Perricone’s is wholly inspired by the founder’s Italian heritage. Before the restaurant opened in 1996, Perricone’s own grandmother taught the chefs how to make the restaurant’s famed and beloved meat lasagna. Back then, the restaurant was largely a lunchtime favorite, but it has since become a staple of Brickell’s nighttime dining scene.
We spoke with Perricone about how the concept of the restaurant was formed, and how he thinks the neighborhood has and will continue to change in the coming years.
Why did you open Perricone’s Marketplace & Café?
I’ve been in the nightclub and restaurant business since 1976. I used to live in New York, but when the economy took a turn for the worse in 1987, the city was in a bad place. There was a lot of crime, and I had to close down two restaurants in Manhattan. I had a friend who lived here and came to visit and thought it could be a big opportunity. I moved to Florida in 1989, and here I am, 26 years later.
What inspired the menu?
The is the the food that I grew up with in New York. A lot of the recipes are my mom’s and grandmother’s. The pomodoro sauce we use is a simple, clean pomodoro sauce my mom made years ago. The pasta e fagioli is my mom’s recipe, also. The meat lasagna has been on the menu from the beginning. That’s my grandmother’s recipe. When I first opened, she came to the kitchen and taught the chefs how to make it. She was Neapolitan, so it’s a typical Neapolitan lasagna. It’s delicious. It was just good, clean, everyday food. Over the years the menu has evolved to include a lot of healthy salads and fresh fish.
The interior is so rustic and old in appearance. How did you create that ambiance?
Well, there used to be an old building that sat on this site, and the original idea was to just renovate it. I wanted an “Old World” type of feel. While renovating the building, the roof collapsed, so we had to get rid of it. But I still wanted an old-world feel. I went to Vermont and found a 200-year-old barn, and we disassembled it and shipped it to Florida. I moved it in and constructed it to look like it’s been around forever. That’s how we created the look and feel of this restaurant. So that’s one change.
Why did you pick Brickell?
Initially, I opened a restaurant in South Beach, on Washington Ave. It was called Stefano’s.
The concept was a marketplace with a small café. I didn’t think South Beach was where I wanted to be long term. I had my eye on Brickell for a little while. I found the property in 1994, and I made a deal, then opened in 1996. My idea was to do the same concept in Brickell. The only difference was that I would also have a large restaurant in addition to the marketplace. I thought it would work because there were a lot of residential people here. There were a lot of daytime workers because of the business community. Also, South Beach was very seasonal, and I wanted to be where people were living more consistently, which is why it appealed to me.
You’ve been in Brickell for almost two decades. How has the neighborhood changed in that time?
When I opened here I was alone for a very long time. There was nothing. West Brickell was a community of small, single family homes with little to no nighttime business at all. No one came out at night. In Downtown, the people who worked there left right after work and this area was basically barren. I usually did business on the weekdays for lunch, but in the evenings, it got very quiet. It’s gone from that to what it is today.
I’ve seen the transition. It happened all around me. Before, there were nights where we were open and there was one waiter, myself, and two guys in the kitchen. We’d be sitting at the bar and if we saw headlights we’d get excited. Now there’s plenty of headlights to see with bumper to bumper traffic, unfortunately or fortunately.
Now, Brickell is the epicenter of all of development. It was an area that was lively, then it died during the recession and now development and buildings have come back with a fury. You have the Brickell City Center and residential developments, and it’s all within 100 yards of my front door. It’s pretty exciting stuff. This is part of the movement of a return back to Downtown and metropolitan areas. People are moving back from the suburbs into the city and it’s special to see. Most of South Florida is a place where you have to drive everywhere, but now if you live in Brickell, you can walk to work and live, work, and play in the neighborhood, and actually not have a car.
How do you think your neighborhood will change in the coming years?
I think the area will continue to grow. Hopefully, there’s more tourism. When people visit, they’ll come here instead of going to the Beach. There’s all the hotels, Downtown is getting busier, and people not only live here, but come to visit the Downtown area, too. The Brickell City Center will bring a whole new influx of people. It’s going to be one of the premiere shopping areas in the country, much like Bal Harbour. I hope there’s more and more people. It’ll keep my restaurant busy and growing and keep the neighborhood growing.