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Meet the Center City Argentinian restaurateur who wants to feed Pope Francis her empanadas

When Pope Francis comes to town, Gavin’s Cafe owner Jezabel Careaga wants to feed him empanadas.

As owner of the only Argentinian restaurant in Center City, where her daily-made hand pies are based on recipes from the homeland she shares with the pontiff, her chances are better than most. Still, she’s realistic.

“My sister and I have a plan to tweet him, but I don’t know that it will work,” she said, describing the very early stages of her planning for the World Meeting of Families, which brings Francis to Philly in late September. “I would love to have him taste my empanadas. And my medialunas — they’re similar to a croissant, but smaller and sweeter; they’re everywhere in Argentina, in every single cafe.”

Careaga has reached out to city officials about coordinating some kind of papal hand-off, but hasn’t yet heard back. Efforts may gain traction after she’s featured on the local TV news — slated for sometime this month — and in a magazine article later this summer. No matter what, she’ll prepare something special to commemorate the visit.

“It probably won’t be religious, though. That’s just not where I am right now,” she told Billy Penn during an interview at her Fitler Square cafe.

Like 90% or more of Argentina’s population, Careaga, 33, was raised Catholic. Along with her three siblings, she attended Catholic school — run by nuns for the girls and priests for the boys — and attended church with her parents every Sunday. At age 18, however, she left her hometown of Palpala (population: 50,000) and moved to the large, central Argentine city of Córdoba to attend college. Since then, her views on religion have evolved.

“I don’t practice regularly at this point. I have come to my own beliefs about something superior,” she explained. “I see old classmates in Argentina posting things about God on Facebook. It’s such a huge part of their life, and it’s funny for me to watch from afar.”

Since she was 6 years old, Careaga had a desire to live on the Northeast Coast of the United States. After completing a masters degree in business in Córdoba and Buenos Aires, she took a job in Miami in 2007, seeing it as a stepping point toward her eventual goal. A serendipitous meeting with a Philadelphian on vacation led her to move here and partner with him on her first business venture.

The space on the corner of 26th and Pine had sat empty for nearly 20 years — its most recent previous incarnation was an Irish pub called Kellien’s — but it had been in the Gavin family since the late 1800s. Careaga was always an aspiring chef (she went to school for hotel management instead of culinary school, because it would be less of a financial burden on her parents), and quickly saw the potential to turn the location into a new restaurant. After close to 10 months of renovations, including polishing the old bar and mirrors to turn them into a pastry counter, she opened the doors to Gavin’s Cafe in June 2010.

Building on recipes learned growing up — her grandmother’s apple cake, her aunt’s beef empanadas studded with raisins, her mother’s vegetable-filled tartas (quiche) — she developed a menu and introduced it to a city where Argentinian cuisine is not easy to come by. Miami has a large Argentinian community, she says, but Philly, not so much. At least not in Center City.

Happily, she didn’t need to do much convincing. The food spoke for itself, and Gavin’s Cafe has become a beloved neighborhood favorite. Just about anyone who tries the empanadas marvels at the flaky dough, the spicy but light fillings and the bright, fresh, hand-chopped chimichurri sauce that comes on the side.

Although she never actually met him, Careaga does remember being in Buenos Aires at the same time as the holy man who would become Pope Francis. Then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he was famous for his work with the poor, she said, and is now viewed by those in her native country as a celebrity. She laughed when comparing his celebrity to Diego Maradona — a retired soccer legend and Argentine who was known as the “Hand of God.”

Since she lives just blocks from her cafe, Careaga doesn’t have to worry about commuting to work during the September visit (a worry for some because of a possible “pope fence” and other road restrictions), so the Argentinian empanadas will keep popping out of her ovens throughout.

And even though she’s not a devout, practicing Catholic, Careaga is a fan of Pope Francis and his progressive statements.

“Some people in Argentina think if you don’t baptize your baby within a certain number of months, evil will come in, or something,” she said. “I think it’s good to have religion as some sort of framework for your beliefs, but the Roman Catholic church needs to be updated for 2015. These are rules they came up with 2,000 years ago.”

 

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