By Bill Williams
Photographs by Lyall Aston | September 26, 2011 | People
Clockwise from top left: Aby Rosen, Eva Chow, Siervo, Lorenzo Martone and Naomi Campbell at Wall at the W South Beach, 2009
With Alitza Weiss at Ugo Colombo’s 50th birthday, March 2011
Sam Robin and Siervo at Metro in Hotel Astor, 2008
With Sean Penn at Siervo’s birthday celebration at Wall in 2010
Installing Joia with Chris Paciello and Ingrid Casares in 1998
Siervo with Valentina Contato, at Joia, 1999
An evening at Joia: Alexis Ougrik, Siervo and Charlie Schreiner, 1998
Nicola Siervo taking a breather at the W South Beach, June 2011
Like any creature of the night, Nicola Siervo lives for the jump, the rush-filled moment when the intersection of fate, luck, beauty, celebrity and money jolts a room awake. And tonight, at Quattro Gastronomia Italiana on Lincoln Road, the jump comes with the arrival of Laure Hériard Dubreuil of The Webster boutique and fashion designer/photographer/Webster figure Milan Vukmirovic. Siervo co-owns the restaurant and pretty much eats there every night, inevitably moving on to his club, Wall at the W South Beach hotel, after dinner. If you own a South Beach restaurant or club and aspire to the realm of chic, Hériard Dubreuil and Vukmirovic are exactly the kind of people you want on hand, and Siervo, who’s been in the business for 25 years, knows the drill.
There’s a flurry of hugs and cheek-kisses as he greets them. “My little baguette,” is what he calls Hériard Dubreuil. “I never see you now that you have a boyfriend…. you look fantastic…. why don’t you come to Wall later for a drink?” Hériard Dubreuil, naturally, is on what she calls Siervo’s “wasssup list,” alerted by Twitter when Siervo is in New York encouraging his more glamorous friends to eat and drink at the Manhattan division of Quattro. Luring the chic is part of the nightlife dance, though Hériard Dubreuil, like most people on South Beach, seems genuinely fond of Siervo: “Nicola has been such a success in the business because he has no ego, but one of the reasons I moved to Miami was Mokaï, Nicola’s old club. It had such an amazing feeling, and we were all there constantly.”
Vukmirovic is in the let-us-now-praise-nightlife moment, too: “Nicola, you’re always talking about struggling, but you have clubs everywhere. I want to be like you—all my life is work. I want to figure out how to make more money and do less work.” After a last volley of kisses and philosophical ruminations, Vukmirovic and Hériard Dubreuil join a Euro-glam table, and Siervo returns to his own dinner. He sets a pack of Marlboro Lights and two cell phones on the table. “I don’t like to be disconnected,” he says, before commenting on a life spent as a “night person.”
“Customers like to see you around at night, and I actually like to be with people, so I’m out every night anyway. Going out is a kind of addiction, but I choose to live this life, and I still have energy. I feel young when I’m in a club; I only feel old if I’m home.”
The Bang Era
South Beach is Siervo’s destiny, the ideal playground for a nice Italian boy who likes to go out. He came down from New York to put the low-budget Bang together right after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and opened in December of that year. It was the first restaurant/lounge hybrid on the Beach, lots of drunken dancing on the tables and all that, and Siervo’s nocturnal life since then has encapsulated the transformation of South Beach from a scrappy little bohemian village of degeneracy, loaded with artists, drag queens and fringe characters, to the corporate era that produces both the glamour of the W South Beach and the mall-ish Gaps, Johnny Rockets and rampant frozen-yogurt monotony on Lincoln Road.
As with South Beach itself, Siervo is in the big-time chapter of his life. In 2005 he formed KNR Restaurant Group with several partners: Rony Seikaly (former Miami Heat player and current night-world mogul and aspiring DJ), Karim Masri of the Hotel Astor, and investor Nicola Schon. They ramped up with Quattro and Mokaï, and in 2009 entered the mainstream/big-money era with the W South Beach hotel, including the Living Room Lounge and Wall. Just last month—in the biggest restaurant news South Beach has heard in a while—the group announced they’d lured acclaimed New York chef Andrew Carmellini to turn the hotel’s former Soleá space into The Dutch. Last year, they signed up the Trump Soho New York, with Quattro, Kastel, The Library and Bar d’Eau. Quattro on Lincoln Road just won a Five Star Diamond Award from The American Academy of Hospitality Sciences; it’s directly across from their popular pizza place, Sosta Pizzeria. And in New York, KNR may be expanding their presence with other Quattros and such.
“South Beach was a different place during the Bang era,” Siervo recalls. “There was no bottle service or limos then. Now, there’s more money, and the hookers and gold-diggers are here too. The promotion and public relations machine in this business never stops. South Beach began in the time before Twitter and all the paparazzi. We’re all exposed now, which can be bad if you’re married or have something to hide in a club, though Twitter and Facebook are good for marketing.”
True, it’s not about handing out flyers anymore, or calling key groovy people, or snagging whatever dissipated actors might be in town for a drink and PR moment at your club. Now, celebrities are paid for appearances and cellphone cameras are everywhere. On certain levels, the new era has brought some positive changes: Art Basel Miami Beach, along with a rise in the general intelligence level of the city, has inspired some tremendous evenings.
In With the New
For someone who came out of the rough-and-tumble of circa-1992 Bang, last year’s Aby Rosen dinner at the W South Beach during Art Basel was a revelation—a seated, downright civilized affair that symbolized how far the city has come. Siervo was in his element, bouncing around the room as Rosen, co-owner of the W South Beach, happily took in the scene. Rosen is a certifiable big deal: An internationally recognized art collector, he owns two modernist landmarks in Manhattan, the Seagram Building and Lever House. The latter property has major pieces by Jeff Koons and Tom Sachs; W South Beach houses works by Damien Hirst, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Cohosted with Samantha Boardman, the dinner entailed Jane Holzer, former Warhol superstar and noted Palm Beach art collector, along with Calvin Klein, Tory Burch and an old-school South Beach dose of unlikely fame in the form of art world luminary Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez. Afterward at Wall, Rosen’s “everyone” list grew to include Vito Schnabel, Stavros Niarchos, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and—who else?— Naomi Campbell. For Siervo, it’s still a defining moment. “That was such an amazing party. Who knew that we would get to a point where a night on South Beach would be so smart, all about art and culture?”
For everything that has been gained on South Beach, there has been a commensurate loss: Each passing year inspires more where-have-all-the- good-times-gone moments, a sense that a certain je ne sais quoi has left the joint forever. Siervo is part of the new era, but he’s also a walking, talking figurehead of Old South Beach, a symbol of past pleasures taken in youth. Bang, in the heart of the fray on Washington Avenue, was the little Italian restaurant that could. From the beginning, Siervo was on the job. “Claudia Schiffer danced on the tables, and we had great Sunday night parties with people like Sylvester Stallone and Mickey Rourke. Bang was such a crazy place, and I went out to all the other clubs too: Le Bain, Rebar, Warsaw, The Spot, Miami Velvet, after-hours at Niva and Union Bar.”
Sandee Saunders is a South Beach survivor who dates back to the Bang epoch of Siervo. Back in the day, she worked at Debbie Ohanian’s Meet Me in Miami boutique, and now has The Sandee Saunders Project, a high-end showroom and wardrobe-consulting firm that reps international emerging designers and coordinates personalized trunk shows. To Saunders, Bang was the bomb: “My mother raised me to be a lady, but at Bang, I danced on the tables like everyone else. That place was an Italian soap opera, but he had such good energy. Once you walked in, and he kissed you on each cheek, it was all good. And it’s the same at Wall. Now I’m a single mom, with my son’s schedule on my iPhone, but I once danced on tables at Bang.”
South Beach by Way of Salerno
As with most nightlife professionals, Siervo started out as a devoted amateur. He was raised in the village of Sant’Arsenio in the countryside south of Salerno. “It was a very simple, traditional life, but with a lot of value—family, daily life, food—in everything, values I still put to use here. But even as a kid, I liked to throw parties, and I was a DJ, too, playing Italian pop music,” he says.
“For college, I went to Polimoda in Florence, part of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Then I moved to New York City, studied marketing communications and went to work for an Italian company that owned stores in the city. At night, I’d go to Nell’s, MK, Café Tabac, Save the Robots, everywhere. As a student, I was a waiter at a place called Arlecchino, and that’s where I met Cesare Bruni, who had Boom there. I knew nothing, but the restaurant and club business interested me; I eventually became a promoter at Boom. And when Cesare decided to do Bang on South Beach, he made me an offer.”
The success of Bang led to Jason Binn, then copublisher of Ocean Drive and founder of Niche Media Holdings, asking Siervo to join him in running Bar None with Oliver Stone. “It was the first club below Fifth Street, right on Washington Avenue. Everyone was there: Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Gianni Versace. When it was sold in 1996, I traveled for three months.”
Naturally Siervo went to the nightclub-infested Ibiza, where he still goes every summer, a typical busman’s holiday for any nightlife guy. When he returned to South Beach, he joined up with some other pivotal figures.
“Ingrid Casares and Chris Paciello wanted to do Joia, and we debuted on Ocean Drive in 1998. We had an incredible opening with Madonna and people like Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz. During the production of Any Given Sunday, you’d see Al Pacino, or Oliver Stone, sitting by himself at a table and working on the script. But then, Chris had his problems….”
Paciello, of course, had major problems when his past—including an association with a New York crew involved with a botched home invasion that led to murder—caught up to him. Paciello went to jail for six years, then eventually moved to Los Angeles and wound up in the restaurant business. He’s rumored to be returning to South Beach and the nightlife wars very soon.
After the Joia era, Siervo joined Rony Seikaly and Roberto Caan, a very former partner. “In 2005, Roberto and I fell out— now we don’t get along anymore,” says Siervo. Back in 2001, the dream team opened the sleek modernist Mynt Lounge on 19th and Collins Avenue, new nightlife terrain at the time. The next year he opened Metro Kitchen + Bar at the Hotel Astor with hotel owner Karim Masri, followed by Rok Bar with Tommy Lee, and Vita across the street with Caan. Mynt Lounge, Rok Bar and Vita were all eventually sold.
South Beach is a nocturnal world seemingly without end, and Siervo has been there through most of the history made in darkness. At a certain age, he insists that he’d like to retire and open a quiet little 40-seat restaurant somewhere in Italy. But for the moment, Quattro is popping. A table of Italian fashionistas, over-calibrated whooping cranes of chic, chatter about other people’s bad taste. The eternal gene pool of models and buxom party girls in tight dresses order Champagne, accompanied by older sugar providers with untucked pressed dress shirts and a practiced leer. And Siervo, for now, remains the ringmaster of the new order. “You can have the most beautiful club in the world, but unless you have a lot of beautiful girls there, it means nothing. No girls, not so good [a] club. Look at all the girls—how can you not like South Beach?”
Location courtesy of the W South Beach