Giovanni Fesser is reinventing Miami's favorite pastry. A couple of years ago, the burly, bearded, 38-year-old Ariete sous-chef was awake in the middle of the night, bouncing between episodes of Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and videos of entrepreneur/motivational speaker Gary Vaynerchuk. For some reason, he began thinking about pastelitos and couldn't stop.
Not long after, he and Ariete chef/owner Michael Beltran presented a pastelito filled with head cheese, fish sauce, and caramel at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Thus, Miami's Pastelito Papi was born.
Today you can find him every Sunday morning at Ariete dishing out wild creations such as the Miami cheesesteak pastelito: A palomilla steak is chopped up and mixed with complete seasoning, lime juice, boiled yuca, and touches of cream and white cheddar. He has also collaborated with El Bagel's Matteson Koche to create a baklava pastelito. However, Fesser's masterpiece is the frita pastelito, which set everything in motion a little over a year ago.
Born in Las Vegas, Fesser came to Miami when he was barely out of diapers. Growing up, Karla Bakery was the family's sweet spot. "My grandfather would buy pastelitos for us religiously before school, and I still do it," Fesser says.
At the age of 19, he took a job in the kitchen at Duffy's Tavern before bouncing to a nearby Chili's, where he spent four years cooking. After attending Johnson & Wales University in North Miami, he landed a job at Tarpon Bend and later Norman Van Aken's now-shuttered Norman's 180 in Coral Gables. The time spent on the line was transformational.
"Had I not worked there, I wouldn't know anything. I wouldn't have met Mike [Beltran]. I wouldn't know how to really cook. I wouldn't know about local farms — nothing," Fesser says of his time at Norman's 180. After the restaurant closed, he followed Van Aken to Tuyo in downtown Miami before linking back up with Beltran to become Ariete's morning sous-chef. Fesser arrives around 8 a.m. daily to do the restaurant's prep for the day and is usually gone by 6 p.m., just as the dining room begins to fill.
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As he delved deeper into the underbelly of Miami's Cuban pastries, he realized the city was crying out for something better. The lone purveyor of exciting creations wrapped in flaky, sugar-glazed puff pastry was Andy Herrera's Breadman Miami, offering choices such as Nutella and sweet cheese.
"People were freaking out, and I knew this was it," Fesser says.
Since then, he's created a rotating lineup of pastries that now includes classics such as guava and cheese alongside the famous frita. In the offing this weekend are ones filled with smoked barbecue pork and Buffalo chicken. He'll also be at Arbetter's Hot Dogs in Westchester late Friday dishing out peanut-butter-and-jelly-filled pastries. His pastelitos go for $3 or $4 apiece and can be ordered to go. He's recently begun selling a few each weekend at Jason and Melanie Schoendorfer's Babe's Meat & Counter and is in talks with Nordstrom, so prepare yourself.
"I want to do a crab-cake pastelito, a croqueta preparada, and one called a cangrejito that looks like a crab but is filled with ham," Fesser says. "There are so many more I can do."