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Sweetwater restaurateur serves Italian food `with love in his heart’

Nick Gonzalez serves Italian fare at La Nonna — just like his grandmother used to make.

Special to The Miami Herald
For the past decade, New York native Gladys Lopez has been satisfying her craving for Italian food at La Nonna Italian Ristorante in Sweetwater.

“We have been coming here every Saturday night for 10 years religiously after church,” said Lopez, who enjoyed an eggplant parmesan dish with husband Jose Lopez.

“And we are not intending to stop.”

The Lopezes are just one of many families who are regular patrons of the restaurant, which opened in 1995 and is located at the Holiday Plaza, 117 SW 107th Ave.

Owner Nick Gonzalez makes customers feel right at home, Lopez said.

“Nick is very jolly and he always comes out and says `Hi’ to everybody,” she said.

Gonzalez, 77, rarely sits down. He can play any role in his eater, from greeting customers customers at their tables to washing dishes.

“La nonna” means grandmother in Italian.

The restaurant is named after his late grandmother, Ernestina Cossentino, whose parents were born in Italy and who he credits for his success.

“La nonna told me I can’t just be a bus boy or chef,” said Gonzalez, who lives in Hialeah. “You have to learn everything, whether it is being a plumber or a cashier. You need to know it all when you run your own place.”

Born on a farm in the province of Oriente, Cuba, Gonzalez was raised eating Cossentino’s Italian meals. In his 20s, Gonzalez traveled the world, including Italy. In 1963, he immigrated to New York, where he worked at the family restaurant, El Bambino, which was overseen by his grandmother. The Brooklyn restaurant served as a training ground for him.

“I climbed up the ladder from cleaning the basement to being a bus boy to finally managing the restaurant,” he said. “That’s where I learned to perfect and make my own sauce, along with cannelloni.”

Following his dream of running his own business, he moved to South Florida with his family. In 1986, he opened El Bambino on Bird Road with only $27 in the cash register and one employee — himself.

He later opened other restaurants in Kendall and Miami Beach, but ended up selling the locations. In 2000, he sold El Bambino and dedicated his time to running La Nonna, which he calls his pride and joy.

The menu is full of Italian favorite dishes, such as spaghetti and meatballs, as well as chicken florentine, which includes spinach and mozzarella in a Marsala sauce.

Dinner meal prices start at $8.50. All meals are served with garlic bread and salad. The restaurant also offers lunch specials for $5.50. Wine is available.

West Miami-Dade resident Michael Commini — a native of New Jersey — spoke to Gonzalez in Italian as he enjoyed his linguine.

“A lot of the Italian food in Miami tastes like Spanish food, but this place has the Italian touch,” Commini said.

Prior to La Nonna, the location housed four other restaurants, which closed. Gonzalez, who also is a carpenter, added wooden walls to the kitchen and interior.

Inside, a picture of his grandmother hangs along with several works of Italian and Cuban artists. Customers get a feel of Italy as Italian music is played. Baby showers and other family events are celebrated also. Gonzalez has six employees servicing customers.

Gonzalez also volunteers as a cooking instructor at Miami-Dade College.

On a recent weekend, wearing a white apron and chef hat, Gonzalez checked on the Lopez’s food.

The chef said the key to a successful restaurant is putting the patron first.

“Have love in your heart to give the food,” he said. “And don’t sacrifice the customer.”

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