All their friends told immigrants Max and Lara Lucchetti that living in America would be easy, despite the price tag. So they sold their handyman service, uprooted their lives in Milan and invested their life savings – all $100,000 of it – on a familiar gamble: opening a restaurant in South Florida.
Now, facing an obstacle they didn’t anticipate in COVID-19, the Lucchettis may be forced to close their Pompano Beach restaurant, La Forketta, within two months, and give up their American dream.
A National Restaurant Association survey in mid-September estimates that 100,000 restaurants have already permanently shut nationwide, and 40 percent of operators don’t expect to survive another six months without federal relief.
But the Lucchettis carry an added burden that other struggling restaurants don’t share. They belong to a class of immigrant entrepreneurs whose future in America is staked to their business’s survival.
If La Forketta fails, their visas may be canceled, forcing Max and Lara and their two sons to move back to Italy – or face deportation.
“It’s been horrible,” says Max, spinning a margherita pizza in the oven of his rustic – but empty – trattoria in Pompano’s suburban Palm Aire neighborhood. “I’ve just been scared. Lots of sleepless nights.”
To open a restaurant in the United States, many foreign-born business owners like the Lucchettis apply for E-2 visas, says Patricia Wall-Santiago, a Fort Lauderdale immigration attorney who has 10 such clients. So-called E-2 “investor treaty” visas are granted to entrepreneurs who invest large sums of money in a U.S. business; for restaurants, it’s roughly $100,000. The visa requires owners to not only break even but also hire U.S. workers and hit profitability goals, she says.
Hitting those goals during the pandemic, when restaurant capacity has been restricted, is likely impossible. La Forketta’s sales are down 70%.
Business owners sacrifice everything for a shot at American success – despite a high risk of failure, says Alessandro Colnago, the Lucchettis’ immigration lawyer. He says immigrant-owned restaurants with E-2 status are common in South Florida.
“I would tell them to stay in business however they can,” says Colnago, who has offices in Milan and New York. “If they lose it, they have to go back to where they came from immediately. But Max and Lara are really creative. I’m optimistic for their chances.”
“We can’t lose this business,” says Max, 50, gazing around La Forketta’s dining room. “I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to start all over again. It would kill us. Our sons are more Americans than Italians. So are we.”
Coming to America
The Lucchettis stumbled on South Florida by accident. Lara’s Italian friend, Michaela, lived in Pembroke Pines, and on temporary tourist visas, Lara would visit while Max sunbathed on Hollywood Beach. “That’s when we fell in love with this place,” Max recalls.
Massimiliano “Max” Lucchetti grew up in San Donato Milanese, south of the Italian Alps, as the son of a petrol worker from Ancona and a homemaker from Milan. From his father, he learned to cook tripe, zuppa di pesce and other Central Italian dishes; from his Northern Italian mother, Max learned comfort food: homemade ravioli, lasagna Bolognese, chicken scallopini. La Forketta’s menu is a fusion of both styles, he says.
“She never want me to cook. She is territorial in the kitchen,” Max says with a laugh. “So I would watch and make mama’s recipes, but I would always make it with different flour or bigger eggs.” All his culinary knowledge is DIY like this: He once paid a Milanese baker to teach him to make ciabatta, and learned pizza-making after “eating thousands of overburnt and undercooked slices,” he says.
It was trial and error, Max admits, and he didn’t take owning a restaurant seriously until Italy slipped into a recession in 2014. He sold his 17-employee handyman service in Milan and hired an immigration lawyer.
But the risk was high, Lara says. To apply for Max’s E-2 visa, they first had to deposit $100,000 into an American bank account, then submit a visa application to the U.S. embassy in Rome. On tourist visas during 2014, the couple moved fast. They had to scout storefronts in Broward County with a realtor who spoke Italian, sign a lease for La Forketta, buy kitchen equipment, seek food licenses and permits, hire building contractors, buy a car and rent an apartment – all before the E-2 visa was approved.
“That’s the big source of anxiety for folks like Max and Lara: You’re putting everything on the line, and there’s no guarantee the visa will be approved,” Colnago, their lawyer, says. “If your application is denied, whatever you spent up to that point, you lose it all. U.S. Immigration needs to see you have enough skin in the game and capital invested in this country.”
The wait took four months. Max remembers their sons Luca, now 15, and Allessandro, now 20, were so excited they watched English YouTube videos for six months and refused to speak in Italian, he says.
When they arrived in Pompano Beach, in December 2014, there was more confusion.
“Our English is not good now, you can imagine what it was like then,” Max says, making a pretend head-exploding gesture with his hands. “Especially when you have to go to the city for permits, it’s hard. Sometimes you want to cry in frustration. We both cried. Everybody told us America was easy.”
When La Forketta opened on Dec. 5, 2014, no one came. Locals wanted phone book-size menus of Italian-American fare like chicken Parmesan and spaghetti with meatballs, not the 10 trattoria daily specials he scratched onto his chalkboard.
“That place was always dead. They were about to fail. They just weren’t accustomed to doing it the American way,” recalls Daniel Martin, a La Forketta dishwasher and manager of three years. “When I started, the servers were disorganized but the Milanese-style food was delicious. I added to the menu and organized servers into sections, and things ran much smoother.”
This past July, when Martin heard La Forketta was again on life support, he scrambled to help, posting about Max and Lara’s plight on Facebook: “This is a hidden jewel in our community that I’d hate to lose,” he wrote. “Covid19 is not going to win and destroy our community!!!!!”
The first unsettling months of culture shock upon arriving in the U.S. can be a bewildering experience for foreign-born restaurateurs, who are often alone and without guidance, says Anthony Pantano, a Miami-based immigration lawyer.
That’s how Simone Raccanello, 35, and Antonella Diluca, 34, felt on their journey to opening Via Vai, an Italian wine bar, in Wilton Manors. “It was extremely hard,” Antonella says. “When we move here, we didn’t have any money left, so I say to Simone, ‘I hope everything is OK, because there is no plan B.’ "
Thirty miles northwest of Milan, Simone, 35, and Antonella, 34, met in high school in Tradate, a small, admittedly “boring” factory town near the Switzerland border. From her mother Maria, Antonella learned that Italian food was a religion, best expressed through hot dishes of hand-filled ravioli and lasagna with homemade bechamel.
While she worked for a helicopter manufacturing company, Simone and his brother opened a cocktail bar, Glamour Café, in 2010. “Tradate is not a place for a young person,” says Simone, whose successful café had 12 employees, including weekend DJs and bouncers. “It’s very flat, not many places to go.”
Raised on a diet of “Dexter,” “Scarface” and American hip-hop, Simone and Antonella, self-described “America lovers,” longed for a fresh start. Starting in 2012, on tourist visas, they vacationed every year around the Florida Keys, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami. By 2018, Simone sold his partnership in Glamour Café and by 2019 applied for an E-2 visa.
“It was our dream,” says Antonella, who married Simone in 2013. “In Italy there’s too many headaches. You have to spend more money on taxes to stay open. We knew we could earn more from an American wine bar.”
On two tourist visa trips in February and May 2019, the couple hired a realtor, then deposited their life savings – slightly over $100,000 – into an American bank account.
“Nobody tell us what to do, who to hire, what to spend,” Antonella says. “We were all alone, wondering if the application would be approved. So we try to be as quick as we can.”
The gamble paid off: On Feb. 5, their wine bar debuted on Wilton Drive. They even found an apartment three minutes away.
A month later, COVID-19 took a wrecking ball to South Florida’s restaurant industry.
Could COVID-19 end the dream?
After one profitable month at Via Vai came two months of lockdowns, a pivot to takeout only, a second COVID-19 spike over the summer and now an uncertain fall. And few customers in between.
Sales are down sharply from February, and 30 percent rent breaks from Simone and Antonella’s landlord between March and May have helped. Neither has drawn a salary since Via Vai opened, and sales are barely enough to cover overhead and vendors.
“We can’t compare our sales to last year because there was only one month where we made money,” Antonella says. “So many snowbirds came in February, but when we reopen in May, it was not high season anymore, and not many people knew us. It was like a second grand opening.”
Sales have barely improved since. Homesickness tugs at them after the pandemic scuttled scheduled summer visits from their parents, brothers and friends. Nor can they simply journey back to Tradate. “We have to work,” Simone says. “We can’t afford to waste a month in quarantine because of international travel.”
But the massive investment they made in Via Vai keeps them centered. “We are still here, we still love America,” Antonella says. “We don’t blame ourselves. We blame the pandemic. We know the bar was doing well in February.”
If the experience of immigrant entrepreneurs in America sounds extraordinarily risky, it’s also common. A 2018 New American Economy report, using data from that year, estimated there are more than 388,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in Florida, and 245,000 from South Florida alone.
The U.S. State Department doesn’t break down where E-2 visa holders reside, but 43,286 E-2 visas were issued nationwide in 2019, according to data from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
How many deportations resulted from expired E-2 visas? That data is not measured, says attorney Patricia Wall-Santiago. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, between October 2016 and September 2017 — the most recent data available — 7,082 deportations were processed at ICE’s Miami facility.
“When you apply [for an E-2 visa], it’s like submitting a business plan for the next five years,” Pantano says. “The U.S. government has to see the vitality of that business, that it will succeed and hire U.S. workers and not only support the business owners.”
E-2 visas typically last two to five years, and business owners are given temporary Social Security numbers. If that visa expires, or the business owner isn’t profitable enough, it will be canceled, Colnago adds. “They must go back immediately to their country,” he says. “If your business fails, you have no choice.”
But Pantano is hopeful. He thinks U.S. Immigration will be more compassionate to restaurants that miss profit projections in the pandemic.
“The government understands this is a pandemic, and we believe they’ll take the economic impact into consideration before deciding to renew the visa,” he says.
But none of that matters if Via Vai perishes now, Pantano adds.
That worst-case scenario can be devastating to immigrant entrepreneurs. It’s what happened to Marco Iannuzzella, who sold his eatery of three years, Pod Pazza Osteria Del Duomo in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, in October 2019. Iannuzzella, 34, doesn’t have another $100,000 to reapply for a E-2 visa and start all over again, and must return to Italy early next year.
“I like what Simone and Antonella and Max and Lara are doing because they keep a positive attitude. They still have the dream,” Iannuzzella says. “My dream is a little bit broken.”
But Iannuzzella has a pay-it-forward mentality. Last year, he sold Simone a car and helped find Via Vai’s food suppliers when the couple first arrived in South Florida. He also sold meat supplies to Max.
“If people don’t help each other out, this world will fail,” he says. “You have to keep thinking the future will be brighter than now.”
Still, the Lucchettis can’t help think COVID-19 may kill La Forketta.
“A lot of people asked when we first arrived, ‘Why are you here? Italy is beautiful,’” Lara says. “They don’t understand we live half our lives in Europe. To see another country, to speak another language, that’s very important for us and our sons, and that’s why we absolutely can’t go back.”
For Antonella, of Via Vai, the end of the American dream is not the end of the world.
“It will be disappointing if we have to leave,” Antonella says. “We try to have a good, crazy adventure. But if we go home, we go home. And we see our families again.”