It takes confidence to open a quiet five-room hotel in Miami's scene-crazed South Beach. But Italian-born real estate investor Miky Grendene has never lacked that. Driving his Vespa through the Milan streets one day in 1989, the Padua native thought he spotted his friend, actress Talisa Soto, but when the woman turned out to be a look-alike model named Leticia, Grendene set up a fake casting call and urged Leticia's agency to send her. The ruse worked. Now living in Miami with their two children, Miky and Leticia have spent the past three years creating Casa Tua, South Beach's tiniest, calmest and most unusual new boutique hotel.
The Mediterranean Revival property, an anomaly in South Beach's Art Deco district, was built as a private home in 1925 by architect Robert A. Taylor and is listed on Miami Beach's roster of historic places. By the time Miky bought it, in 1999, the building was a dilapidated apartment house. With the help of architect Michele Bonan, the Grendenes gutted it and planted gardens and tall hedges to shield it from the street.
Inside, Casa Tua feels like an intimate private estate. The rooms are stocked with Loro Piana cashmere throws, Tréca mattresses from Paris and Santa Maria Novella toiletries. One suite is furnished with saddle-stitched leather night tables and 200-year-old Chinese chests, and another, inspired by designer Givenchy's bedroom in Cap Ferrat, France, is done in understated navy-and-cream. The dining room, dominated by a 15-foot-long chestnut table custom-designed and built in Italy, is adjacent to an open kitchen with an enormous cobalt-blue Molteni stove, one of only two in the United States, Miky claims. (French superchef Alain Ducasse owns one, too.)
"Casa Tua is more than a restaurant, less than a hotelbasically, it's a home," Miky says. "But we try to give you the possibility to experience things. You can touch the linen and buy it, taste our food and learn how to make it." Indeed, many of the items at Casa Tua are for sale, such as the linen sheets, the Taschen art books and the artwork hanging in the lounge. Cooking lessons with chef Sergio Sigala are offered weekly, allowing guests to attempt house specialties such as tuna tartare flecked with olives and sun-dried tomatoes, or minestrone di frutta, a fruit soup served with panna cotta.
Parties at their Biscayne Bay home give the Grendenes a chance to try out their latest food and design obsessions on friends. For an Easter lunch, they stole Sigala away from the Casa Tua kitchen to create a menu of traditional and modern Italian dishes. The meal started with a lettuce soup flavored with watercress and herbs that revealed the Italian penchant for pleasantly bitter flavors. There was a light spring salad of asparagus, scallions and beautifully caramelized scallops, the sweetness of the seafood brought out by a hint of balsamic dressing. And then it was on to Miky's favorite recipes from Sicily: a roasted veal loin marinated in olive oil and thyme and served with caponatina, a sweet-and-sour dish made with eggplant, wine vinegar and sugar. The highlight of the lunch was ricotta cavatelli, a hand-rolled pasta, served with speck, a smoky cured ham from northern Italy.
Sitting under enormous shade trees with a sweeping view of the ocean, guests finished lunch with a semifreddo, a layered dessert of frozen zabaglione custard. To offset the sweetness, the Grendenes also served a bracing, bittersweet espresso granita. It was a characteristically bold twist totally in keeping with their bold approach to the making of Casa Tua.
Tara Solomon lives in Miami Beach, Florida, where she writes the Advice Diva column forThe Miami Herald.