Florida restaurant owner fighting for his life after COVID

FILE - This electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health shows a human T cell, in blue, under attack by HIV, in yellow, the virus that causes AIDS. The virus specifically targets T cells, which play a critical role in the body's immune response against invaders like bacteria and viruses. Colors were added by the source. Some researchers believe COVID-19 has derailed the fight against HIV, siphoning away health workers and other resources and setting back a U.S. campaign to decimate the AIDS epidemic by 2030. (Seth Pincus, Elizabeth Fischer, Austin Athman/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH via AP) (Seth Pincus)

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Everyone thought it odd when Nino Pernetti called the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2020, to say he was skipping the annual New Year’s Eve dinner at his landmark Coral Gables restaurant of more than 30 years, Caffe Abbracci.

He injured his ankle while playing his daily round of tennis, he told his friends, family and staff at the restaurant where athletes, actors and politicians dine in anonymity. The doctor, he said, instructed him to put up his leg and rest it for a week.

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

Days later, his oldest daughter, Tatiana Pernetti, just home from an overseas vacation, got a FaceTime call from her father. He was at the hospital. Come quickly, he told her: In 40 minutes, he would be transferred to the COVID-19 ward at Mercy Hospital, where no visitors were allowed.

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

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

Pernetti remains in a rehab facility, where he has quietly endured the ravages of COVID-19 with the discretion he usually reserves for his roster of celebrity diners. Behind that veil of secrecy, he is fighting for his life.

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

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

In 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 has brought out the best in the people closest to him, healing decades-long wounds that don’t show up on chest X-rays.

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

“He’s such an amazing, 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 the morning of Dec. 31 that he had tested positive for COVID-19. But Pernetti wasn’t showing serious symptoms. The doctor suggested he take a round of antibiotics and wait out the contagious period at his Grove Isle condo.

Pernetti treated the news discreetly, the way he’d treat a mishap in his dining room, where three U.S. presidents and everyone from LeBron James to Sylvester Stallone dine knowing they won’t be accosted by autograph seekers.

But he got worse. He called an ambulance when he had trouble breathing 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 younger daughter, Katerina, is still in high school, and all of Pernetti’s extended family lives in Italy.

Tatiana Pernetti found herself making decisions for her father on her own. She was 22.

“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 initially improving, nurses found him unresponsive after a round of cortisone to help stimulate his lungs. Doctors called Tatiana for approval to intubate her father.

“I didn’t know anything about intubation, anything about COVID,” she said, stopping to compose herself.

She called her mother, Marlén Pernetti. It wasn’t an easy call.

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

Marlén had lost her own father in her 20s. She has spent most of her life as the medical proxy and caregiver for a younger brother with chronic kidney failure. She knew what to do. She ran to the hospital with Tatiana, where doctors intubated him and eventually performed a tracheotomy.

“He had no one else, and he’s the father of my daughters,” Marlén said. “I never wanted my daughters to live with that void.”

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

She helped the nurses change his gown. Ten years of acrimony slipped into the background.

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

Nino got stronger. He went from 114 pounds back to 140. He worked with the speech therapist to regain his ability to speak. He was determined to stand. Marlén was reminded of the fact his mother died of typhus when he was three and doctors in Italy were so amazed he fought the disease they named him, “cabrito,” little goat.

When Jackson released him to a rehab facility this summer, the nurses clapped along the hallway all the way to the ambulance.

“He was taught the will to live from early on,” Marlén said.

What Nino missed outside the hospital walls, his family brought in to him. Broken-hearted that he would miss his daughter’s graduation in May, Pernetti’s eyes lit up when Tatiana stepped into his room in her Notre Dame regalia.

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

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

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

Pernetti draws his strength from them just as his restaurant draws its strength from him. Without him at Abbracci in the last year, there has been a void.

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

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

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

Meanwhile the longtime diners and friends who know about Pernetti’s fight continue to send well-wishes and gifts: a rosary that has been blessed by the Pope, books for Nino to read in the hospital, bottles of wine for him to celebrate the day he goes home.

“It’s been a beautiful outpouring during this most difficult year that we’ve had to endure. We are eternally grateful,” Marlén said.

When that day may be, no one yet knows. An infection in November pushed back his potential release for the holidays. But his family remains hopeful.

He has not come this far, they say, to give up now.

“This is part of the makeup of Nino,” Marlén said, “He’s a fighter.”