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Thursday morning in Miami, Leticia Herrera Grendene stands near a sprawling, century-old oak tree in her front lawn as bossa nova plays in the distance. She’s wearing a crisp white dress, and her long brown hair is pulled in a low ponytail to expose a necklace with a single Tahitian pearl she picked up in Bora-Bora. Members of her entourage—Dino, a wheaten terrier; Frida, a Maltipoo; and Orso, a chocolate lab—take turns surveying the blades of grass at her feet while she arranges a bouquet of ranunculus with equal parts precision and nonchalance.
The moment may seem like a scene ripped straight out of a Nancy Meyers film, but in truth, Herrera Grendene, 51, embraces the messiness of reality. “I love imperfection!” she says, appearing satisfied with her impromptu floral creation as her husband, Miky Grendene, approaches. “You can’t try to make everything perfect,” she says. “It’s not relaxing. So, we go with the flow. Miky is the king of that.” It’s easy to see how the pair—who in 2001 opened Miami’s famed Casa Tua restaurant, a private social club, gallery, and luxe five-suite guesthouse—has created a burgeoning empire based on being both consummate and carefree hosts. And on this day, they are back to where it all began, hosting about a dozen friends, including jewelry designer Lara Curcio, hoteliers Hubert and Victoire Baudoin, developer Valerio Morabito, and model Vita Sidorkina, for a poolside lunch at their home.
When Grendene, a former real estate developer and financier who aspired to be a chef in his youth in Italy, and Herrera Grendene, who was then a model, started out in Miami as a young couple 28 years ago, they quickly gained a reputation for their culinary skills and knack for entertaining. “It’s our way of life, so it comes naturally. Everyone would tell us, ‘Oh, you should open a restaurant,’ ” says Herrera Grendene.
With no professional hospitality experience, formal advertising, or even signage, the pair converted a historic 1925 Miami Beach house into Casa Tua and created a word-of-mouth hot spot. “My philosophy is to go the opposite direction of what other people are doing. I did everything you’re not meant to do when you open a restaurant,” says Grendene. “I invest everything on what I give directly to the customer. That’s what sets me apart.”
Eighteen years in, Casa Tua has become one of the town’s most beloved institutions and an enclave for beautiful, boldfaced names in fashion and entertainment. The space feels simultaneously homey and sexy, an understated tonic compared with the city’s flash. “Instead of art on the walls, we had pictures of friends and family,” says Herrera Grendene. “People didn’t always understand it, but we wanted it to be an extension of our home.” Grendene adds, “I didn’t want to be a restaurateur. I wanted it to be the home that everybody wished they had for entertaining their guests.” Indeed, the actual Herrera-Grendene household has the same casual, sophisticated feeling. The decor is a study in sharp contrasts, as colonial rubs elbows with chinoiserie and pops of color that all seem to work together. “It’s what we love. It doesn’t have to match,” says Herrera Grendene. “It’s going back to basics. When you see the lifestyle, it all seems so beautiful, but our focus is still on the simple things.”
Perhaps that’s why their expansive art collection feels spontaneous and even a bit cheeky. A massive Lawrence Schiller photograph of a skinny-dipping Marilyn Monroe is displayed near an equally mammoth master-bath shower, while a small Wayne Thiebaud sundae painting—a gift from the artist’s son—hangs discreetly in a corner of the dining room. Dreamy family photos (many by friend Bruce Weber) and portraits of Herrera Grendene spanning her 30-year modeling career are strewn throughout the home as well. “A house has to be about the people who live in it,” says Grendene. Passing a few bongo and conga drums that stand at the ready for an impromptu jam session, he says, “Leti is the queen of the congas!”
The couple’s three children—Giovanni, 22; Alessandra, 19; and Luca, 14—grew up in the house and are also no strangers to stomping the grounds of Casa Tua’s vine-covered, lantern-lit garden.
Grendene’s own childhood in the countryside outside Venice has heavily influenced the restaurant’s straightforward lineup of timeless Mediterranean and Italian staples (roast octopus, black-truffle risotto, veal milanese, pappardelle with lamb ragù, and panna cotta with fresh basil). “There were a lot of endless dinners and functions,” he recalls. “As an only child, I was bored sitting at the table with all these adults, so I would always sneak into the kitchen to watch the chefs prepare the food. That’s when I got the passion.”
As an adult, Grendene still rarely strays far from the kitchen. For today’s gathering, he oversees a lunch menu that mirrors the uncomplicated cuisine of his restaurant, with a few surprises: Wood-oven-baked branzino al sale is contrasted with Vietnamese-inspired lemongrass ribs and Saigon spring rolls (a preview of an eclectic, global restaurant Grendene is developing). The dishes rely on freshness and care rather than any trendy gimmicks. While Casa Tua has, over the years, gained renown for its exclusivity, its ethos continues to be grounded in something warmer. “We created this brand from our lifestyle, the beauty of the house, sharing good food and beautiful moments,” says Grendene, who’s also intent on keeping the business environmentally sustainable. “We’re in a privileged position where we can call our customers friends.”
Casa Tua has continued to expand organically. It opened an Aspen offshoot in 2010 and will debut inside the J.K. Place Paris hotel this February, which comes on the heels of its most ambitious project to date: 2018’s Casa Tua Cucina at the Saks Fifth Avenue store in Brickell City Centre in Miami, which serves up to 2,000 customers a day. Despite its $15 million price tag, the 18,000-square-foot, 300-seat food hall—which also includes a full bar with 48 wines by the glass, a flower market, and a home goods boutique—hasn’t strayed from the brand’s mission. “People feel comfortable. It’s as if you’re walking into somebody’s kitchen,” Herrera Grendene says of the 12 dining stations where guests interact with chefs from around the world as they prepare handmade pasta, salads, hamachi, baked goods, and pizza. “You really feel at home, and you come back to the people who are cooking for you,” Grendene says, his Italian bravado amplifying. That feeling is the driving force behind even more plans for the brand: a Mexico City location and various hotel residences, a lifestyle book, additional Casa Tua Cucina food halls, an artist residency program, and the creation of sustainable farmland that will serve all its properties.
As the last of their guests arrive, the couple’s go-with-the-flow mentality is put to the test: A torrential downpour quashes the feasibility of an alfresco afternoon. Undeterred, Grendene summons his friends to a cozy table near the kitchen. He’s in his element—quick to get everyone involved with a few sneak peeks and the requisite taste tests.
The guests, many of whom have known their hosts for decades, easily sum up the secret behind their accomplishments: “There’s great food, wine, music, art, culture. Everything you need to make life richer,” Morabito says. “But the feeling of being home is what makes them so successful.” Victoire Baudoin interjects, “Even if someone doesn’t know them, they always make you feel like part of the family—that’s their gift.” Grendene prepares the paste-like mixture of water, egg whites, fennel, and heaps of kosher salt that will encrust the sizable whole fish, and it begins to resemble moist sand. “It’s such an uncomplicated, pure process. You don’t have to do much because the fish does the work for itself,” he says before emphasizing one final touch. “We do everything with a lot of heart. It’s at the middle of the plate.”