"What kind of Jewish food do you think we could put into a pastelito?" Giovanni Fesser asks while poaching a few dozen eggs in the subterranean kitchen of Ariete (3540 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove; 305-640-5862; arietemiami.com). The answer: lox and cream cheese. But chef/owner Michael Beltran recalls they tried that once. "The cream cheese ran everywhere, and the lox cooked — it didn't taste right," he says.
This time, the two have a plan. They'll bake puff pastry rounds, cool them, split them open, and stuff them with soft cheese and salmon. Finally, they'll shower them with the same seeds that appear on everything bagels. It's similar to a previous pastelito that was filled with sweet banana jam and tangy chicken liver mousse.
Here, in the kitchen they call "the dungeon," Miami's most exciting pastelitos are being dreamed up. Over the past two years, Fesser, a burly, bearded 38-year-old, has begun making inventive pastries from thoughtful ingredients. Amazingly, he's done it in his few free moments between finishing the stocks, mixing the sauces, and performing other prep work the restaurant needs to run day-to-day.
On a recent Sunday morning, he turned out a peanut butter and jelly pastelito using homemade jam, alongside a classic guava one made with beautifully floral-tasting and -smelling fruits from the Redland farm PG Tropical. There was one filled with tender pulled pork and another with spicy, salty Buffalo chicken crowned with a thin squiggle of blue cheese. They combined the salty richness of the best savory dishes with enough sweetness to make them uncontrollably addictive.
Fesser was born in Las Vegas and moved to Miami when he was barely out of diapers. Growing up, Karla Bakery — the Central Dade classic — was the family's sweet spot. "My grandfather would buy pastelitos for us religiously before school," he says. "And I still do it."
At the age of 19, he took a job in the kitchen at Duffy's Tavern in Coral Gables before bouncing to a nearby Chili's, where he spent four years. Soon, however, he decided to sign up for cooking classes at North Miami's Johnson & Wales University. After finishing, he landed a gig at Tarpon Bend on Miracle Mile. Then he wanted a bigger challenge. "I'd been working in kitchens for so long I felt comfortable," he says. "But I knew there was more I could do."
So he popped into Norman Van Aken's now-shuttered Norman's 180 and applied for a spot as a line cook. Once hired, he gained a new appreciation for hard work and ingredients from the elder statesman. The experience proved transformational.
"Had I not worked there, I wouldn't know anything," Fesser says. "I wouldn't have met Mike [Beltran], I wouldn't know how to cook, I wouldn't know about local farms — nothing." After the restaurant closed in 2011, he followed Van Aken to Tuyo in downtown Miami before linking back up with Beltran to become Ariete's executive sous-chef.
Over time, he continued to delve deeper into the world of pastelitos and realized the city was crying out for something better. Inspiration struck about two years ago while he was awake in the middle of the night watching episodes of Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and videos of entrepreneur and speaker Gary Vaynerchuk. For some reason, he began thinking about pastelitos. At the time, the lone purveyor of exciting creations wrapped in flaky, sugar-glazed puff pastry was Andy Herrera's Breadman Miami, which offers choices such as Nutella with sweet cheese.
"People were freaking out," Fesser says, "and I knew this was it."
A short time later, he and Beltran created a pastelito filled with headcheese and fish-sauce caramel for a South Beach Wine & Food event. Miami's "Pastelito Papi," as he's known on Instagram, was born. Soon he began slowly adding pastries to Ariete's brunch menu. The first success was the frita. The combination of spicy chorizo and beef with onions and ketchup proved perfectly suited to puff pastry.
Next came the Miami cheesesteak with chopped palomilla steak mixed with complete seasoning, lime juice, boiled yuca, and touches of cream and white cheddar. There's all the fatty richness of Cheez Whiz without the twinge of guilt for coating one's arteries with industrial neon sludge.
From there, word began to spread. Regular restaurant customers would call to see what he was creating. Fesser also began collaborating with chefs and cooks.
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He and Matteson Koche, who runs El Bagel, the food truck that's open Saturdays behind Boxelder Craft Beer Market, conjured up a baklava pastelito. The complex nuttiness of crushed pistachios elevates the pastry from a sugar rush to something important. Last month, he began delivering pastries to Melanie and Jason Schonedorfer's Babe's Meat & Counter, and another idea germinated. "They gave me a bunch of pastrami scraps, so I'm going to start working up a Reuben pastelito," Fesser says.
What's next is unclear. At the moment, there are thoughts of a standalone operation. It's anyone's guess how popular the pastries will become. Consider that last Sunday just before noon, a gentleman in a pastel polo shirt strode into the restaurant and stood at the bar as Fesser emerged from downstairs with two boxes of pastries. The man lifted his aviator sunglasses and lovingly gazed at the cook's creations. Clearly, something is happening, and this is only the beginning.
For years, a close friend has been making an otherworldly smoked pork for cookouts and other gatherings. Fesser wants to use it for a pan con lechón pastelito with house-made mojo and crisp bits of chicharrón. He's working with a Brazilian friend to create another variety, filled with the ginger-heavy shrimp stew he called curu curu.
"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. "I have so many ideas, but I'm most excited about anything where I can collaborate with a chef from another culture and their food is interesting."