Florida restaurant owner fights for his life after COVID



Nino Pernetti, owner of Caffe Abbracci, left, stands at the restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla., Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Pernetti is celebrating 30 years in the restaurant business. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)


Everyone thought it odd when Nino Pernetti called the afternoon of December 31, 2020 to say he was skipping the annual New Year’s Eve dinner at his signature Coral Gables restaurant for over 30 years, Caffe Abbracci .

He injured his ankle playing his daily game of tennis, he told friends, family and staff at the restaurant where athletes, actors and politicians dine anonymously. The doctor, he said, told him to lift his leg and rest it for a week.

“We should have known better,” said his ex-wife Marlén Pernetti. “Nino would not miss Caffe Abbracci on the 31st. He would have shown up on crutches.

A few days later, his eldest daughter, Tatiana Pernetti, who had just returned from vacation abroad, received a FaceTime call from her father. He was in the hospital. Come quickly, he told her: in 40 minutes he would be moved to the COVID-19 ward at Mercy Hospital, where no visitors were allowed.

“I ran and spent as much time as possible with him,” she said.

More than a year later, Nino Pernetti has still not returned home.

Pernetti remains in a rehab facility, where he quietly endured the ravages of COVID-19 with the discretion he usually reserves for his celebrity guest list. Behind this veil of secrecy, he fights for his life.

Pernetti, who celebrated her 76th birthday at the Jackson Memorial in July, lost nearly 50 pounds at one point. He needed a tracheostomy to help him breathe with lungs riddled with fibroids and scar tissue caused by the coronavirus. He was denied a lung transplant due to ongoing problems with his heart. And he remains on machine-assisted breathing, as he learns to talk and walk again after spending most of the last year in hospital beds.

“So many people still don’t take this virus seriously, maybe because it didn’t hit them close to home,” said Marlén Pernetti. “I wish people would understand it’s live or die.”

Over the past year, the Pernettis have learned what it means to endure the worst of COVID-19 — the toll it takes on a body and a family. But it also brought out the best in those closest to him, healing decades-old wounds that don’t show up on chest X-rays.

His progress over the past two months, they say, gives them hope that the smiling figure behind a South Florida institution will return home soon.

“He’s such an amazing and strong man to be able to endure all of this,” Marlén said.

The problem, Pernetti now admits to them, started with pride.

Pernetti’s family doctor told him on the morning of December 31 that he had tested positive for COVID-19. But Pernetti did not have serious symptoms. The doctor suggested she take a round of antibiotics and wait out the contagious period at her Grove Isle apartment.

Pernetti treated the news with discretion, as he would treat an accident in his dining room, where three US presidents and everyone from LeBron James to Sylvester Stallone dine knowing they won’t be approached by claimants. autographs.

But he got worse. He called an ambulance when he struggled to breathe and the oxygen meter the doctor ordered showed his levels dropping dangerously low. His first call was to Tatiana, his medical proxy. His other child, his youngest daughter, Katerina, is still in high school, and all of Pernetti’s extended family lives in Italy.

Tatiana Pernetti found herself alone to make decisions for her father. She was 22 years old.

“It was scary,” she says, her voice cracking a year later at the memory.

Things only got worse. Pernetti was transferred to Jackson Memorial, where after an initial improvement nurses found him unresponsive after a round of cortisone to help stimulate his lungs. Doctors called Tatiana to get permission to intubate her father.

“I knew nothing about intubation, nothing about COVID,” she said, pausing to collect herself.

She called her mother, Marlén Pernetti. It was not an easy call.

The Pernettis divorced in 2008, after more than 10 years of marriage – and not amicably, Marlén admitted. The court battles lasted until February 2020, when Nino Pernetti’s lawyers accused Marlén of disparaging him in front of their daughters. Now his daughter was asking him to help take care of her father.

Marlén had lost his own father in his twenties. She spent most of her life as a medical proxy and carer for a younger brother with chronic kidney failure. She knew what to do. She rushed to the hospital with Tatiana, where doctors intubated her and eventually performed a tracheotomy.

“He didn’t have anyone else and he’s the father of my daughters,” Marlén said. “I never wanted my daughters to live with this void.”

Marlén became Nino’s caregiver while Tatiana returned to Notre Dame to complete her final semester of college. She massaged her legs and arms. She spoke to doctors and nurses on her behalf. She brought carrot soup and fagioli pasta from Caffe Abbracci. When he asked for pasta Bolognese, she brought some from the restaurant and put it in the blender so he could gently drink it from a spoon.

She helped the nurses change her gown. Ten years of acrimony passed into the background.

“If you had told me that I would have been at this man’s bedside after all this…” she said. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Nino has become stronger. He went from 114 pounds to 140. He worked with the speech therapist to regain his ability to speak. He was determined to stay up. Marlén remembered the fact that his mother had died of typhus when he was three years old and Italian doctors were so amazed that he had fought the disease that they named him “cabrito”, little goat.

When Jackson sent him to rehab this summer, nurses cheered down the hall to the ambulance.

“He learned the will to live very early on,” Marlén said.

What Nino missed outside the walls of the hospital, his family provided. Heartbroken at the prospect of missing her daughter’s graduation in May, Pernetti’s eyes lit up when Tatiana walked into her room dressed in her Notre Dame regalia.

“I put on my cap and gown, walked in, and we had our own little graduation,” she said.

And when he turned 76, Marlén arrived at the rehab center with croquetas, bocaditos and Versailles balloons. She brought the artist who performs at Caffe Abbracci on special occasions to play sax and guitar while the nurses sang “Happy Birthday.”

“Nino lives off the energy of seeing people,” Marlén said.

Pernetti draws its strength from it as its restaurant draws its strength from it. Without him at Abbracci last year there was a void.

“Nino falta,” said Loris Curzio, manager at Abbracci for 31 years, who has known Pernetti for nearly four decades. “Nino is the head and heart of this restaurant. Nino’s charisma cannot be replaced.

Tatiana, although she started law school in Georgetown last fall, spent the holidays at the restaurant, visiting the tables as her father did. Since the age of three, she has watched him regularly sitting with parties throughout the night, “as if you were his brother, sitting in his house”, Curzio recalls.

As Georgetown shifts to remote learning for the next month, she has made overseeing Caffe Abbracci part of her responsibilities.

Meanwhile, long-time diners and friends who know of Pernetti’s struggle continue to send well-wishes and gifts: a rosary that was blessed by the Pope, books for Nino to read in the hospital, bottles of wine for him to celebrate the day of his departure. residence.

“It has been a great outpouring during this most difficult year we have had to endure. We are eternally grateful,” Marlén said.

When that day will be, no one knows yet. An infection in November pushed back his potential holiday release. But his family remains hopeful.

He hasn’t come so far, they say, to give up now.

“It’s part of Nino’s makeup,” Marlén said, “He’s a fighter.”


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