Thursday, June 13, 2024
Sport News

Meeting Messi: How the Argentine superstar changed the lives of a restaurateur, barber and muralist

When you walk into Cafe Prima Pasta in Miami Beach, the disco music and red dimmed lights immediately set the atmosphere. The restaurant, which specializes in Italian cuisine, is always buzzing with locals. They claim to serve the world’s best carpaccio di manzo — a bold declaration, but one that I don’t disagree with after trying the raw beef dish.

The walls at the restaurant are adorned with pictures of celebrities from the past and present who have dined there. Candids of John Travolta, Matt Damon, Hulk Hogan, Michael Caine, Manu Ginobili and Michael Jordan are scattered amongst photos of Lionel Messi and his Argentina teammates Angel Di Maria and Rodrigo De Paul. In many of the photos, the celebrities are joined by founder Gerard ‘Gerry’ Cea, who moved to the U.S. from Argentina in 1985.

Messi first visited Prima Pasta over a decade ago, but his most recent visit on July 13 of last year, led to one of his more memorable viral moments since coming to America. The Argentina playmaker was mobbed by fans after leaving the restaurant through the back exit. With just one foot out the door, he signed a man’s Newell’s Old Boys jersey, Messi’s childhood club in Argentina.

“You’re the best player in the world!,” a young boy shouted desperately in Spanish, as Messi made his way through the crowd. “Bienvenido a Miami, Leo,” said one man calmly, before flipping his cell phone towards himself and yelling, “This is crazy!” Another man wearing an Argentina national team jersey kissed a smiling, suntanned Messi on his left cheek.

Since winning a Copa América and World Cup trophy with Argentina, Messi’s stardom has ascended to new heights, especially among his fellow countrymen and women. Globally, of course, Messi has always been a mega-celebrity. Miami’s controversial global tour was an example of how important he remains abroad. Stateside, Messi has transformed Inter Miami’s profile; they’re now MLS’ biggest story.

Most things he touches go viral.


‘A thuggish flamingo’: Why China turned on Lionel Messi

The thrill of interacting with Messi can be life-changing. In Miami, Prima Pasta was already a local institution, but now they’re known as Messi’s favorite Miami restaurant. Elsewhere in the city, a local barber’s luck changed after he met Messi, while a globe-trotting muralist drew on Messi’s World Cup victory as inspiration to create a viral work of art.

Messi’s immediate impact is obvious, but his lasting influence requires a closer look at the outskirts of his orbit.

(Photo courtesy of Gerry Cea. Design by Eammon Dalton)

The beloved restaurant owner

Messi’s visit to Prima Pasta in July became world news, as Messi Mania took off last summer. The scene inside the restaurant, however, was much different, as patrons did their best to act normal as Messi and his family dined right next to them.

“Messi casually walked in through the front door,” says Angelo Acción, 30, a bartender who was working that night. “At first the customers who were here didn’t realize that he had walked in. Once they saw him, a lot of the customers waited out back for him.”

Acción, a native of Cuba, is at first unwilling to talk about Messi. He wasn’t sure if he should give an interview. As he made me an Old Fashioned, Acción admitted that he has never been a soccer fan. But everyone knows who Messi is, he says. “When I saw him in person I thought ‘Wow, that’s Messi.’ I had never seen him in person before. I never thought that I’d run into him either.”

Claudia Cabrera, 28, another bartender at Prima Pasta sighs from behind the bar. She wasn’t working that night. “I can’t believe I missed him,” she says. “I talked to a friend of mine who was here that night. She says that when Messi’s in front of you it’s almost unbelievable.”

I can feel Prima Pasta’s general manager Fabio Palombo’s death stare as I finish my conversations at the bar. “Who are you? Who are you with?” he asks me. After I show him my credentials, Palombo relaxes a bit. “I don’t like to talk to reporters,” he says with a nervous laugh. He’s a native of Naples, Italy, and naturally, a die-hard Napoli supporter. “I’m a (Diego) Maradona fan,” he says.

Palombo answers a nearby ringing phone and confirms a reservation, then tells me reluctantly that Messi and his family, including his wife Antonela Roccuzzo and his father Jorge, ordered the house specialties. Penne ciao, agnolotti rosso and the black linguini. “(Messi) comes here often,” says Palombo. “The customers were surprised to see him. We treat him like we do all of our customers.”

Did he know ahead of time that Messi was coming? Palombo doesn’t answer. After an awkward moment of silence, Palombo says, “Those are things that the owner handles.”

Cea, 57, is the beloved owner of Prima Pasta. He boasts a friends list that any pop culture lover would envy. At his home in Miami, Cea has signed guitars by Lenny Kravitz, Eric Clapton, René Pérez, artistically known as Residente, and another one by the late Gustavo Cerati, one of Argentina’s most renowned rock stars. Cerati visited Prima Pasta many times before his death in 2014. Cea, who has become a friend of the Messi family, also has a Gibson guitar signed by Inter Miami’s No. 10.

“Leo is always super cool,” Cea says. “This was his third visit but his family has been coming for the last 12 years. He’s always so relaxed, always smiling. Never a problem. Just a very cool person.”

Messi always calls Cea on the same day he intends to stop by. Cea says that very little preparation follows. A table in the back of the restaurant is sufficient. Cea tells me that the agnolotti rosso is Messi’s favorite dish. It’s a luscious stuffed pasta with ricotta cheese and spinach in pink sauce. But eight days before his Inter Miami debut, Messi ordered a simple pasta dish with fresh tomatoes and basil. After a vacation in the Bahamas earlier that summer, Messi didn’t need the extra calories.

What caught Cea’s attention was how relaxed Messi appeared to be. The weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.

“It was a release to win the Copa America and the World Cup,” Cea says. “Leo had so much pressure inside of him all of these years. And now he’s in Miami. The Messis love summer. I was talking to Antonela, and yes they’re new here, but being close to Argentina and the summer weather in Miami…that’s why they’re happy.”

Cea had placed a large poster of a young, smiling Maradona on the restaurant’s exterior to honor the former Argentina captain after his death in 2021; he replaced it with one of Messi after Argentina won the World Cup in 2022.

Prima Pasta celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. The restaurant opened a year before the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. After that tournament, Cea dreamed about the day when soccer would mean more to the American audience.

“I was there at the restaurant, looking at Leo with his family, looking at him with a smile on his face. We hugged each other and I saw how happy he is to be here in the United States. This is unbelievable. It’s amazing for soccer in the U.S.”

(Photo courtesy of Felipe Cárdenas. Design by Eammon Dalton)

The self-made barber

Luis Andrés Rivera, known as El Bori Barber on social media, is a Puerto Rican entrepreneur based in Miami. Last summer his life changed when he became Messi’s private barber. Despite his newfound fame, it was a challenge to contact Rivera. At first, he dodged my calls and left my WhatsApp messages unanswered. When I visited what I believed to be his salon in West Miami, I was told he had moved.

After tracking down the new address, I arrive unannounced. Destiny Barber Studio, located in Wynwood, is a sleek and modern space with three black leather barber chairs. A carefully curated playlist of salsa music sets the vibe. When I walk in, New England Revolution’s Colombian winger Dylan Borrero is getting his hair cut by Daniel Ojeda, a Colombian-born barber who had a brief stint as a lower-division professional player with the Puerto Rico Islanders. Rivera is momentarily stunned when he sees me.

“I found you,” I tell him.

“I signed a document,” Rivera replies. “I can’t say anything.”

Rivera is referring to the non-disclosure agreement he signed with Messi’s camp. Since posting a picture of himself with Messi on Instagram last August, Rivera has had to turn down dozens of media requests. He flashes the WhatsApp messages he shares with Messi then quickly hides his phone. “I can talk about anything else but that,” Rivera says enthusiastically.

Rivera, 29, is from the coastal city of Patillas in southeast Puerto Rico. It’s a modest beach town that feels far removed from the gridlocked city of San Juan.

“That’s where I learned to be who I am today,” Rivera says. “Humble, hard-working, a fighter and a dreamer. There has never been a celebrity from Patillas and Puerto Rico is iconic in Latin America in terms of famous artists, but I don’t consider myself a celebrity.”

Rivera now admits that he can be considered a celebrity barber, but that’s not how he wants to be known. Since 2020, his clientele has included reggaeton stars Bad Bunny, Maluma, Daddy Yankee, Don Omar and Nicky Jam, as well as rappers 50 Cent and Ludacris. “It’s crazy. I can’t even believe it,” Rivera says. Although the list of footballers that call Rivera for haircuts is even more impressive.

“I’ve worked with Vinicius, Jr., Paulo Dybala, Arturo Vidal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, (Paul) Pogba, (Kylian) Mbappé, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, (Achraf) Hakimi,” says

Rivera as he runs out of fingers to count with. “When these guys come to Miami they always call us.”

Miami is an ideal location for Rivera to connect with the biggest stars in world football.

“They feel like they’re in Latin America but with what the U.S. offers” says Rivera. “The people are welcoming, there’s Latin food, Latin flavor. They like to feel like VIPs. And that’s what the Miami experience is all about. It’s like a movie. They want to enjoy their money and Miami lends itself to that.”

“You feel like you’re with family here,” Borrero chimes in. “It’s about more than just coming here for a haircut. You want to go back to a place that treats you well, that treats you like family. Whenever I’m in Miami I come here.”

Rivera can’t talk about Messi publicly, but his association with the Argentina national team captain has coincided with his own career turning point. He has since opened a tattoo shop and an upscale unisex hair and beauty salon in Miami.

“Miami is my life, bro,” says Rivera. “I came here with a humble mindset but with big plans. Miami shows you that anything is possible in life. There are no limits in Miami. I didn’t know any of my famous customers when I came here. I found them here. If you’re disciplined and you work hard here, believe in yourself … Miami is everything.”

Rivera hops up from the empty barber chair he was sitting in and says “Allí llegó” (He’s here.) as a limousine parks outside the studio. A few seconds later, Nicky Jam walks in, right on time for his appointment.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images. Design by Eammon Dalton)

The world-traveling muralist

The beeping sound of a boom lift reverberated off buildings as Maximiliano Bagnasco descended from roughly 65 feet off the ground. Like Rivera, a brush with Messi highlighted his summer in 2023. The 42-year-old Argentinian is the artist who created the most recognizable Messi mural in South Florida.

Bagnasco and I agreed to meet at the mural to discuss its concept. Again, I show up without notice, wondering if he’ll ignore me from way up above. Luckily, I arrived at the same time as Bagnasco’s UberEats food delivery. It’s 11 o’clock on a warm July morning in the Miami art district of Wynwood.

Bagnasco is tired and he admits that interruptions, like fans seeking pictures and international press asking for interviews, put him behind schedule. “I have to finish this today,” he says. “I only have a few things left to do.”

He plays Trance music from a portable speaker on the crane. When he’s painting, he says he’ll listen to a range of music, but electronic tracks are his go-to when he’s in a time crunch.

“I need my mind to drift off a bit and to avoid thinking about the elevation,” Bagnasco says. “When I’m up there, I go into a trance and start painting.”

Among the first celebrities to notice his Messi mural was Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham. The former Manchester United great created his own viral Messi moment when he climbed into Bagnasco’s crane. Bagnasco reminds me that a fear of heights can become a work hazard. Beckham, he says, took everything in stride.

“(Beckham) went up there without any issues. He was impeccable,” says Bragnasco. “He didn’t show any fear at all. He looked like he was ready to be on the cover of a magazine!”

Bagnasco has painted several murals of Messi and Maradona around the world. The idea for the Wynwood mural was a collaboration between Bragnasco and the owner of the building, Gustavo Miculitzki, a 67-year-old Argentinian and a prominent Miami developer with Block Capital Group.

“It was Gustavo’s idea,” Bragnasco says. “He wanted it to read ‘Welcome to Miami.’ We added ‘Wynwood.’ Gustavo suggested that Messi be smiling. I had pitched a different design but we went with this one. It was about welcoming Messi and visualizing him with Inter Miami. It’s Messi as a world champion. That’s the Messi that we have now and the Messi that everyone loves.”

They decided to portray Messi in an Inter Miami kit alongside a jubilant Messi wearing an Argentina national team jersey with three stars for the country’s three World Cup titles. It took Bagnasco nearly three weeks to finish the mural. It’s an impressive work of art that has defined Messi’s pop culture influence in Miami.

Bagnasco hails from the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Saavedra. He’s a trained painter and illustrator who won his first art contest as a nine year old, reproducing a series of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings.

“I’ve taught art classes and many of my students were either tattoo artists or muralists who wanted to go out on the streets and paint,” says Bagnasco. “That’s how I got started. I began to paint (murals) with my students, spending quality time outdoors. My work got noticed and I began to paint in different festivals.”

Wynwood is synonymous with street art. It’s also, as Miculitzki describes, a focal point of Block Capital Group’s developments. “We work with different street artists who we like to promote,” says Miculitzki. “They’re the true masters of art. We believe that real estate and art go hand-in-hand.”

Miculitzki has the throwback raspy voice of an Argentine primera división manager from the 1990s. He’s an art lover whose name has appeared in several stories about Bragnasco’s mural, although he has avoided doing any interviews about his role.

“I really appreciate Maxi’s art and I knew that he’d deliver something that was typical of his excellent work,” Miculitzki says, adding that the mural is approximately 8,000 square feet. “I gave him the idea but it was a back-and-forth process. He provided his stamp and his knowledge of the mural. If you drive by today, you’ll see people taking pictures in front of the mural.”

As much as fans have enjoyed Messi in Miami, Messi, too, has embraced the city’s Hollywood-like culture. He recently dined at Papi Steak Miami with Sofia Vergara and members of the cast of the Netflix drama “Griselda”. He shared a $1,000 55 ounce Wagyu tomahawk steak with teammates Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and their significant others.

Messi sightings are becoming normal in Miami: from a coffee shop, holding his maté to attending a birthday party for a friend of his oldest son Thiago, who plays with Inter Miami’s U-12 academy team.

“It’s been so impressive,” Miculitzki says. “We’ve lived here now for more than 20 years. We know what Leo means and how he moves people — football fans and otherwise. That’s been proven. Messi’s reach is worldwide. It’s incredible. You have to live it to really understand it.”

(Photo: Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)

Leave a Response