Last July 15th marked the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. Today, Casa Casuarina, Versace’s Miami’s latest home and crime scene, is the third most photographed house in the US, after the White House and Graceland. Eating at Versace’s Mansion on a budget is an experience you don’t want to miss while in Miami.
Last week I ended up experiencing Casa Casuarina. The Villa Casa Casuarina is now home to Gianni’s, a Mediterranean-Italian restaurant. Versace’s mansion is also a 10-suite extravagant boutique hotel, and yes, if you can afford it, you can sleep in Versace’s bedroom and in Donatella’s too!
- Things to know before going to Gianni’s
- Is it possible to eat at Versace’s Mansion on a budget?
- 5 Facts about the pre-Versace Casa Casuarina
- Versace’s Allure at Casa Casuarina
- The Dark Enchantment of a Crime Scene
- From Crime Scene to TV Set to Tourist Attraction
- Is it Worth Dining at Gianni’s at the former Versace Mansion?
Things to know before going to Gianni’s
If you are a local or happen to be in Miami and want to have lunch or dinner at Gianni’s, you should know a few things.
Casa Casuarina is strategically located at South Beach’s Ocean Drive. Tourists crowd this area all year round, making public parking challenging to find. Valet parking is $30, and in Miami, we used to tip.
Gianni’s sells the “Versace experience.” This means customers pack it! Plan your visit and make reservations well in advance. Even if you have your table booked, you may experience some delays. For example, we made our reservations for 1:30 pm on a Thursday and had to wait more than 30 minutes to sit.
So, stay calm and look at the courtyard foyer and all the curiosities it treasures, including the four pillars with heads on top representing Columbus, Confucius, Frederick Douglass, and Pocahontas. Or take a look at the antique bell decorating the courtyard. It dates from 1851. Versace incorporated it in substitution of the original California mission bell hanging in the house since 1930.
More important, enjoy your wait: in the end, not every day do you have the opportunity to step into such an extravagant and historical place.
Gianni’s serves lunch al fresco by the “million mosaic pool.” If you are a local, you may prefer to go during the colder winter months, when eating al fresco is cool in Miami. Otherwise, you must be prepared for high temperatures and lots of sweat.
Is it possible to eat at Versace’s Mansion on a budget?
Eating at Versace’s Mansion on a budget is possible. For lunch, they offer an affordable special three-course menu for only $34 (beverages, service, and taxes excluded.) That is the menu I tasted, and I have to say the food was excellent for the price.
We had burrata (super fresh) salad, tempura shrimp (super crispy) with spicy mayo, octopus carpaccio, and Caesar salad as appetizers. We had grilled branzino (the portion was tiny but so tasty) with veggies (cooked to perfection), spinach ravioli, and lobster spaghetti as entrees.
For dessert, we had the tres leches cake (the best in town, trust me) and the mango sorbet. There are extra charges for certain dishes like the octopus carpaccio and the lobster pasta. We all agreed the food was delicious.
Service is great, but at times, it can be slow. The waitresses are very well trained and know their business, but they have to deal with the annoyment of people like me who take pictures and videos of everything. Be prepared for lots of noise.
Gianni’s serves dinner al fresco and also in a more formal indoor dining room. Those who have experienced Gianni’s at night say the ambiance is stunning.
5 Facts about the pre-Versace Casa Casuarina
Nested in South Beach, the sundrenched Versace’s former mansion is a significant point of interest for tourists visiting Miami. Following are some facts about Casa Casuarina that you may want to know.
- Architect and queer socialité Alden Freeman, the heir of Standard Oil, built Casa Casuarina in 1930.
- The Alcázar de Colón, a sixteenth-century fortified palace built in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, inspired Casa Casuarina’s design. The Alcázar was the residence of Diego Columbus, Viceroy of the Indias, and the eldest son of Christopher Columbus.
- Freeman built Casa Casuarina in the Mediterranean Revival style and made it with coralline rock. And guess what: he brought one of the original rocks of the Alcázar de to his property which is located at the main entrance.
- The mansion also hosts a replica of the Homage Tower of the Ozama Fortress in Santo Domingo.
- After Freeman’s death, Jacques Amsterdam bought the building for $100,000. He transformed it into a 24-unit apartment complex and renamed it Amsterdam Palace. After several owners, they called it Christopher Columbus Apartments.
Versace’s Allure at Casa Casuarina
In 1979 Casa Casuarina became a historic landmark. But the best part of its history and glorious times was yet to come.
In 1992, Gianni Versace was at the pinnacle of his career as a fashion designer. His obsession with Greek and Roman mythologies was notorious. Visiting Miami and walking by Ocean Drive, he fell in love with the bronze statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, located at Casa Casuarina’s main entrance.
Versace bought the property for $2.95 million and also bought for $3.7 million the old art deco Hotel Revere next door. Despite the protests of Miami preservationists (the Revere was built in 1950,) Versace demolished the hotel to create the now-called South Wing of Casa Casuarina, the pool, and the pool garden with a big Medusa head in the center of the pebble floor.
The fashion designer invested $32 million in renovations —the result: a space with an unmistakable Versace allure. He transformed the 24-apartment building into a palace in his image and likeness, with eight bedrooms, ten bathrooms, four living rooms, a gym, a steam room, and a shower that accommodates eight people!
The iconic Medusa head, the logo of Versace’s emporium, is omnipresent. The largest one is by the pool garden, but you cannot see it because the dining tables cover it.
The pool is made of tiny Italian mosaic tiles, thousands of them covered in 24-karat gold. The walls by the pool garden are also covered with mosaic tiles. There are four large urns on both sides. Versace designed them, and some of them have broken handlers.
The Dark Enchantment of a Crime Scene
Sir Elton John was an habituée of Versace’s mansion. Among other celebrities, Madonna and Silvester Stallone also partied at the designer home on Ocean Drive. But the allure of Casa Casuarina was tragically and forever sealed 25 years ago.
On the Tuesday morning of July 15th, 1997, Gianni Versace was walking from the newsstand and, while climbing the steps of the main entrance of Casa Casuarina, was shot in the head at point-blank range. He was pronounced dead a few minutes later at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He was only 50 years old.
From Crime Scene to TV Set to Tourist Attraction
After three years of being empty, in 2000, Casa Casuarina was sold, and Versace’s valuables were auctioned in New York. The house became a boutique hotel and a private club. Later, in 2013, VM South Beach LLC (the Nakkash family, owners of Jordache Enterprises) bought the house for $41.5 million. In the auction was also bidding Eric Trump, representing The Trump Organization.
Four years later, in 2017, Casa Casuarina became the Miami set of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, starring Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez as Versace, Ricky Martin as his life partner Antonio D’Amico, and Penélope Cruz as Donatella Versace.
Is it Worth Dining at Gianni’s at the former Versace Mansion?
Absolutely! It’s not only a main South Beach tourist attraction. Casa Casuarina is best known as Gianni Versace’s mansion, where the fashion designer was murdered. But its enchantment and connection with freedom go further. It was built by a gay millionaire at a time when being homosexual was outlawed. It was transformed into a tribute to opulence and extravagance where more is more by an openly gay and unapologetic fashion designer. Its queer nexus is undeniable.
Your visit can be extraordinaire if you go with an open mind, relax, don’t pay attention to the crowd and the noise, and enjoy your meal in such a unique place. Besides: they have the best tres leches cake in Miami!
Gianni’s Restaurant – The Villa Casa Casuarina
1116 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach, FL 33139
Reservations: + 1-305-908-1462