Joe Gauci still remembers the warm pastizzi his mother made for him and his three older sisters when they were growing up. “She used to leave a plate of them on the table
to shut us up,” he said, laughing. Now, through his business, Malta Joe’s Baked Goods, Gauci is using the traditional Maltese pastry to earn a living and connect with his heritage.
Gauci wasn’t always a baker. The native New Yorker dedicated the first 30 years of his career to sound engineering in Manhattan, where he worked on shows like Nickelodeon’s The Ren & Stimpy Show, and Doug. Experience from unpaid internships, cutthroat jobs, and his own sound production company taught Gauci one important thing: how to maintain a good work ethic. While he had a strong passion for sound engineering, Gauci said that the Digital Age “changed everything” and encouraged him to try something new. That “something” was a move from New York City to Tucson.
Gauci and his wife, Karen Zollman, have always loved Tucson, where they spent many years vacationing before their move to the Sonoran Desert in 2012. After moving, Zollman redirected her focus to art and Gauci took a job as a medical coder for El Rio Community Health Center. After two years of medical coding, he realized what was lacking: creativity. Soon, one of the most popular pastries on Malta would fill the gap.
Gauci’s pastizzi revelation occurred while making Maltese cookies for his nieces and nephews one holiday season. Turning to the recipe for pastizzi in his mother’s cookbook, Gauci recalled the pastry’s light flaky dough, savory ricotta cheese, and split pea curry fillings, and remembered vivid scenes from his youth. From there, Gauci went full-force pastizzi. Without precise directions, recipes, or measurements, the first few batches of Gauci’s pastizzi left him wanting more. “I needed to take it to the next level,” Gauci explained. And so, to Malta he went.
Luckily for Gauci, most of his family still lives in Malta, where he says there’s “a pastizzeria in every town.” With trust in his aunts and uncles, pastizzeria bakers opened their shops to Gauci and shared with him their pastizzi knowledge, skills, and recipes.
Gauci revealed his pastizzi at the Westin La Paloma in June 2016 and began selling them at the Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park every Sunday. “The second and third weeks we were getting repeat customers … the fourth week we were selling out … I knew I had something,” Gauci said. They’re offered with either ricotta or split pea curry fillings and come unbaked and frozen so that customers can bring the smell of this freshly baked Maltese pastry to their homes. When it comes to delivery, Gauci adds a personal touch, offering local customers the option to have their goods hand-delivered by the pastizzi maker himself. Customers can order Gauci’s pastizzi by the dozen on Malta Joe’s website to experience a little taste of Malta in Baja Arizona. ✜
Shelby Thompson is the online editor of Edible Baja Arizona.