On a recent Saturday afternoon, Toronto native Heidi Roncarelli took her first bite of a guava pastellito, its sticky-sweet filling oozing out from the sides. She closed her eyes for a second, as an expression of pure joy came over her face.
“This is absolutely delicious,” she whispered to her husband, Ettore, beside her.
More and more these days, tourists — and even many locals — are discovering South Florida through the rich variety of world cuisine that abounds here.
And Grace Della, founder of Miami Culinary Tours, is among those reaping the benefits. After working in online marketing for several years, Della launched her Cuban-inspired tours in Miami two years ago, after creating a similar food tour business for her mother back home in Argentina.
“I thought, if it works in Argentina, and there are people interested in food and culture in Miami, then it can work here too.”
Miami Culinary Tours offers walking tours in Little Havana and South Beach that are centered on sampling local food, while also including a little bit of history and sightseeing. In total, she offers five different tours in Miami-Dade.
The Roncarellis enjoyed their first taste of the traditional Cuban pastry at Yisil Bakery in the heart of Little Havana, a neighborhood they probably would have never thought to visit on their own. They were joined by eight other out-of-towners, from Minnesota to London, and a few locals.
Tracy Jacobs and Ann Possinger, both from California, were visiting Miami for the first time. Each year, the friends of more than 20 years take a vacation together and always look for food tours to better understand their new surroundings.
At El Exquisito, a Little Havana staple for nearly 40 years, they had Media Noche sandwiches, stacked high with thick ham, pork and Swiss cheese slices on sweet bread.
“Yesterday we had a very upscale version of this sandwich in the beach, but this is much better,” Jacobs said. “This is more authentic.”
The extra boost in tourism through the food tours is appreciated by many business owners in Miami’s historic Cuban neighborhood.
“It makes me proud that they come here. The people seem to really love it,” said Heliodoro Coro, who established both El Exquisito, which his nephew now operates, and El Pub restaurant just a few doors down.
In recent years, it seems Miami has truly become a playground for foodies.
“More and more, Miami is getting established as a culinary destination,” said Rolando Aedo, senior vice president, marketing and tourism, for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I am aware of several new companies offering culinary tours. People will set up a business if there is a demand. This tells me the marketplace is viable.”
Another of those new companies is Food Tours of Miami, established by Miami native Stephen Rosenthal last year. His excursions include a South Beach food tour and Pub Crawl in Coral Gables. Ready to Nosh Food Tours, based in Philadelphia and operating in 10 states, offers happy hour tours in Orlando and Miami, as well as a South Florida Food Truck Tour.
“It’s not a job at all. It’s really a lot of fun,” said Rosenthal, a social worker who leads the tours in his spare time when he’s not working full-time at a skilled nursing facility.
While Della’s company caters to a majority of tourists, Rosenthal said his customers are mostly locals.
Back in Little Havana, Miami Culinary Tours guide Mirka Harris led the group through important landmarks after sampling tostones rellenos (fried green plantains stuffed with chicken and picadillo) and shots of Cuban coffee at El Pub.
They walked past the art deco Tower Theater, over the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame plaques dedicated to famous Hispanics and down to Domino Park, one of the most popular attractions in the neighborhood.
“They play seven days a week,” Harris tells the group through her headset microphone. “Even if it’s raining, even if it snowed in Miami, they’d be here playing.”
The tour included a short walk down a residential street to see historic Mediterranean-style homes, as well as stops at art galleries, a cigar shop, Cuba Ocho Art and Research Center, and Azucar Cuban ice cream shop.
But it was the frothy, sweet taste of freshly-brewed guarapo at Los Pinarenos Fruteria that warmed one local’s heart.
“The sugar cane juice really took me back to being a kid,” said Daniel Dominguez of Fort Lauderdale.
For Luisa Castagnaro of Miami Beach, the Little Havana tour was a learning experience.
"I came in thinking, ‘What am I doing here, I'm a local?'” she said. “But it was really great. You're around Cubans all the time, but you really don't know the culture."
Jonathan Tosoia and his mother Kathy Tosoian at the famous TapTap Hatian Restaurant. Patricia Laylle / For The Miami Herald