By Michelle Payer
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
One line in the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton” always brings down the house: “Immigrants: We get the job done.” Chef Rino Cerbone, who opened Heritage in the buzzing Hive section of Flagler Village a month before pandemic lockdown began, says, “Is that not the truest statement?” The son of Italian immigrants—his mother, Concetta, hails from Sicily while his father, Umberto, comes from Naples—Cerbone grew up at the heels of his father, who started his pizza-making career in New York at age 12 and opened his first Pizza Time restaurant in Coral Springs in 1978. Over the years, he built three more restaurants, one of which still thrives in Boca Raton.
“I was literally born into the place,” Cerbone says. “While other kids were going to summer camp, I was peeling potatoes and doing the grunt work no one else wanted to do in the kitchen. I just wanted to be around my dad and be one of the guys. But the kitchen was also fun for me.”
In 2010, Cerbone graduated from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale with a culinary management degree. At 24, he stood at a crossroads. Stellar Revival, the band he started in 2009 with friends, was getting noticed. Capitol Records signed the rock group in 2011 and promptly sent the musicians on a debut U.S. tour with 49 shows in 68 days, followed by a European tour that had audiences peaking at 40,000. But what about his culinary dreams?
“For me, it was never a Plan A or a Plan B; I was happy with both directions my life was heading in,” Cerbone says. “My parents said, ‘You can always be a chef; touring is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’” Thus, they gave Cerbone the essential blessing nearly every child seeks from parents when making life-altering decisions.
When the band took a break in 2014, Cerbone began scouting South Florida locations for his new upscale Italian eatery, Heritage. In 2017, his band’s drummer, based in Los Angeles, heard Bon Jovi was searching for an opening act. He sent in a video clip and called Cerbone with unexpected news: the legendary band had chosen Stellar Revival.
“The next thing I know, we’re on stage with Bon Jovi at The Forum arena near L.A.,” Cerbone says. “I thought, ‘Look at this. Here we are again.’” Music’s siren song had lured the frontman into its clutches once more. In 2019, the five friends created country rock band Westview over bourbon in Nashville, Tennessee, while Cerbone simultaneously focused on opening Heritage in the gritty, graffitied Hive area, a spot that resonated with his psyche.
Amid the juice bars, ice cream parlors and sandwich shops, Cerbone says he noticed “a massive hole in this market for a chef-driven, food-focused, no-B.S. restaurant to counteract the corporate and lackluster dining scene.”
“I saw the neighborhood surrounded by artists and thought, ‘I want to be here with the rebels and the misfits because that’s what I am,’” he says. “I liked being around young, like-minded people who wanted to take risks and do something cool and build a neighborhood, who wanted to bring a higher vibe to the area.”
The 1,900-square-foot spot that Cerbone says initially resembled a mechanic’s garage took two and a half years to build into his clearly defined vision of industrial-meets-modern-chic. The centerpiece of the space, a 1987 limited-edition portrait of Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, is flanked by old family photos.
Cerbone quietly opened Heritage in February with 13 tables and 14 seats at the bar and pizza bar, his pizza chef, or pizzaiolo, father toiling in the kitchen to help handle the restaurant’s demand for labor-intensive recipes. “I’m taking some of the oldest recipes from my parents and grandparents and presenting them in my own way,” Cerbone says. “I wanted people to see the name Heritage, not know what it is, sit down and say, ‘Cool, I get it.’ I wanted it to be something real.”
Then came COVID-19 and the 50% occupancy mandates for restaurants. “I know that at 50%, I have guests waiting in line to get in,” says Cerbone, who credits the eatery’s success to “people appreciating the good stuff.”
Of Heritage’s 14 pizza varieties—all 13-inch pies—Cerbone says the biggest hits are the soppressata and classic fresh tomato, made simply with mozzarella, fresh tomato sauce, olive oil, basil and grated parmigiano-reggiano. “I remember smelling it all the time when I was young,” he says. “For me as a chef, these simple dishes—it doesn’t have to be fancy—are some of the best things I’ve ever tasted.”
He calls the mafaldine bolognese “a magical dish” for blending his parents’ geographical culinary nuances, saying “we use veal, pork and wagyu beef with smoked pancetta and let it slow-cook for hours; the sauce color isn’t red and it isn’t white; it’s in the middle, and is unctuous and delicious.” Cerbone says guests tell him it’s the best bolognese they’ve ever tasted.
As a true rebel, Cerbone bucks a popular Italian restaurant trend by refusing to put fried calamari on the menu. Instead, he stuffs calamari with sausage, broccoli rabe pesto and Calabrian chile oil. His baked razor clams—where the stars of the show are flown in from Boston—are cooked slowly to create a chowder-like substance before being placed in the oven. “These are the bestsellers,” Cerbone says. “I cannot make enough. It’s insane.”
About Heritage’s appeal, Cerbone says, “I definitely wanted to bring a piece of Manhattan and L.A. to Fort Lauderdale with something small and quaint that focused on attention to detail. You need a warm atmosphere, good music, good energy and a good vibe. People have said it reminds them of a little place in New York’s East Village, and I like that.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020-2021 Issue.