The buzz in the 175-person dining room at Café Prima Pasta is so steady you can’t hear the music coming from the secret back room.
But walk past the four low-ceiling dining rooms bathed in a red-orange glow. Past the black-and-white photos adorning every wall and ceiling of celebrities that have dined here over the restaurant’s 27 years in North Beach.
Dip under the photo of Joe Pesci, weave through four separate doors, and from behind a solid wood door with acoustic backing, “Killing Me Softly,” is clinking from an upright black Yamaha.
Prima Pasta owner Gerardo Cea, who built this room from an overflow office, is listening to the man who wrote the Grammy-winning song play for an audience of six.
“Isn’t this amazing?” he mouths from across the room.
It’s just an average Thursday at this Miami Beach standby, which has been a favorite of locals, celebrities and musicians since the days many had homes here. Madonna had lunch here behind face cream and dark glasses the first week it opened. It was like smashing a bottle of Dom over a new ship’s bow.
Since then, the dining room filled up, giving Cea, his parents and brother a place where an Argentine immigrant family could make a living.
But quietly for the past 20 years, in a 14-by-14 back room of his restaurant, Cea has created a musical sanctuary he built for himself — one he shares on any given night with his talented diners.
Who has played in the secret music room?
Beyoncé came through during her Lemonade tour. Iggy Pop brought David Lee Roth. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg rapped while their producer (and former Roots keyboardist) Scott Storch played the chopsticks-like music to “Still Dre” before the hit song dropped. Natalie Cole visited after recording the duet with her late father. Residente from Calle 13 dined on fiocchio that Cea later named “Fiocchio rapero” after the Latin rapper became a backroom regular.
Once, Nickelback jammed so long into the night that Cea left them with the keys, and they came back the next night to eat and play some more.
Meanwhile, it’s the only room in the restaurant without pictures of celebrities. Photos of Cea’s wife Gisela and son Lucas hang over the ‘70s paneled walls. Lucas’ old toys, like an ancient Millennium Falcon and a Darth Vader mask, hang like ornaments from the ceiling. His caramel-colored drum kit in the corner became a plaything for Lenny Kravitz’s band.
Here, on a random night, Rudy Pérez, the Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer for Shakira and Christina Aguilera, brought Hall of Fame songwriter Charles Fox for veal parmigiana and an after-dinner seat at the piano.
“This is a secret place,” Fox said after playing and chatting at the bench for an hour. “It has a feeling of ‘Let’s get together and make great music.’ This is a very special spot.”
Pérez wants Cea to turn this back room into a nightclub: “This place already has so much history.”
Music is tied to memory
Cea, 53, was always a music fan. He sold his bike at 11 to buy a Les Paul-lookalike electric guitar from a pawn shop in Buenos Aires but didn’t realize he needed an amp. Out of money, he set the guitar aside and never learned to play.
When he’d made his fortune at Prima Pasta — where his father Arturo was the chef and his mother Carla baked the bread and desserts — he started obsessively buying guitars. At one point, he had more than 50, most of them Gibsons and Les Pauls.
He started storing them in his back room. He only knew how to play a couple chords. But that was just enough for him to pair with a drum beat machine, make up lyrics and blow off steam. He decorated it for himself and escaped there during breaks in service for 300 guests. It was his quiet musical palace, where he was surrounded by the things he loved. His favorite moments where when his son and his friends from school would jump on the drums, plug in the electric bass guitars and jam with him.
“The restaurant is for everyone else. It’s what gave me everything. It provided work for my family, and it made my dreams come true. But the restaurant industry is so stressful,” he said. “I can come in here, play for 15 minutes, and I’m brand new. If I didn’t have this place, I’d have to go to an insane asylum.”
When he started inviting some musical celebrities to his personal back stage, they instantly understood the connection. Strumming the three chords he knew, he accompanied some of America’s and Latin America’s biggest musical stars in anonymity.
Music is tied into all of Cea’s best and worst memories.
He was five when his father left Argentina amid a crumbling economy to work in a Brooklyn candy factory by day, as busboy in the Rainbow Room at night to send money back. His mother joined him two years later to work in the Astoria, Queens bakery owned by Christopher Walken’s mother. For four years, Cea and his two older siblings were raised by their maternal grandmother.
On lonely nights, he would huddle next to his aunt, who played Creedence Clearwater Revival on vinyl, not understanding the lyrics but soothed by the sounds.
“Music rescued me,” he said. “I would go to sleep with those sounds in my head…. Music was the thing that helped me dream.”
On the joyful day his parents returned, flush with enough money to buy a little apartment for the five of them, they brought him stacks of albums of American music. His favorite: Elvis.
“It really blew my mind,” he said.
Billy Joel taught him English
When Cea left Argentina at 18 to live with family in New York and work as a waiter at the Italian restaurant Tonino’s, he first went to a record store and asked for any rock album that came with lyrics. The clerk sold him a two-disc set of Billy Joel’s greatest hits. He learned to speak English like the Piano Man.
“In a month I was speaking English,” Cea said.
He got to tell Joel that story two years ago when a friend brought the singer in for dinner after a show in West Palm Beach. Floored, Joel has been back to the restaurant at least a dozen times since.
But Cea wanted more. He wanted to be able to do more than play three chords on glistening guitars he had collected or been given by the likes of Lenny Kravitz and others.
“At 50, I turned around and saw myself surrounded by the most beautiful guitars. And I couldn’t play any of them,” he said. “I’d done things for everyone else, but I’d never done anything for myself. I didn’t have a hobby; I didn’t even play a sport.”
That birthday, he drove to his family’s cottage in Fort Myers, cut his curly salt-and-pepper hair and didn’t come home for 10 days until he’d taught himself to play guitar. If it sounds a lot like a midlife crisis, it was.
He also came home with two songs written. When he had 10, Rudy Pérez, who had become a close friend, orchestrated the songs, got a group together and helped Cea cut an album: Something New, available on Spotify.
“The restaurant I’d done for everyone else. This was just for me,” Cea said. “Music was something that took me to a special place.”
Now he shares that special place with those who appreciate what the back room at Prima Pasta is: A place where music is made, not for attention or publicity, but for the simple joy of making it.
“The room,” Pérez said, “is magic.”
Café Prima Pasta
414 71st St., Miami Beach; http://cafeprimapasta.com/