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Amaryllis Rivera-Nassar has become the unofficial “pastelillo lady” of Philadelphia.

Her Fishtown-based pop-up, Amy’s Pastelillos, was born from the desire to experiment with flavors for the traditional Puerto Rican turnovers. The small hand pies — which can be filled with savory ingredients like beef with peppers and onions, or sweet combinations like guava and queso — are fried till crispy golden brown, and usually eaten on the go.

“Pastelillos have always been part of my life,” Rivera-Nassar said.

The Philly native and mother of two is a former events marketer and currently works part-time booking food vendors for Garage bar. But she always felt called to the kitchen, she said, recalling how her late mother would “cook for the masses.”

Rivera-Nassar, who goes by Amy, doesn’t have formal recipes documented or passed down — which is common among Hispanic and Latinx families. So she challenged herself to recreate dishes through “smell, nostalgia and memory.”

One bite of her pastelillos will immediately stir up childhood memories for Boricuas who grew up traveling to and from the motherland.

The ground beef picadillo, an Amy’s best-seller, is juicy, peppery, and rich from the slow thickening of cubed potatoes mixed with a sofrito-layered sauce. The shredded chicken puts others to shame, with tender thigh meat stewed in its own broth and heightened by sweet notes from yellow peppers. The sleeper hit is the guava BBQ pork, a not-so-traditional tangy flavor combo that’s unexpectedly pleasing.

“People connect to these flavors, especially when they haven’t been to ‘la isla’ in a while,” Rivera-Nassar said, adding that customers are often inspired to share back their own food memories.

With a growing interest among her neighbors and much encouragement from her husband, she began selling pastelillos in November 2018, starting first at Garage Fishtown, which later led to her gig as a booker.

The operation scaled slowly, eventually establishing a rotation that included community outposts like Herman’s Coffee in Pennsport, the Sisterly Love Food Fair, events held as part of the Philadelphia Latino Film Fest, and regular showings at Riverwards Produce, where the pop-up returns on Sunday, July 11.

Rivera-Nassar aims not only to honor her mom’s cooking, but to carve out space for Puerto Rican food representation. Philadelphia has one of the largest Puerto Rican communities, second only to New York among big U.S. mainland cities, but many residents struggle to feel seen.

“We are such a big population here but no one knows about us,” Rivera-Nassar said.

Through Amy’s Pastelillos, she has a platform to educate and stoke interest in the culture. Her newest venture, GUSTO Philly, is an event series she co-founded to partner with and learn from other food makers across the diaspora, with regular spotlights that put knowledge-sharing at the forefront.

It’s paying off. At less than $5 per pastelillo, customers often buy two or three, Rivera-Nassar said, and many buy them frozen to later cook at home. Her inventory has grown to an average of 350 pastelillos at a time, with up to seven flavor options. She recently introduced wholesale options through Queen and Rook, a cafe in South Philadelphia. She credits her pastelillos’ success to how easy they are to cook, along with their versatility, affordability, and shelf-life.

Embracing an unknown future, she continues to stretch her footprint, visiting Puerto Rico twice a year. She tastes tons of food — for “research,” of course — and also is “exploring new urban farming and how our food culture is changing.”

For Rivera-Nassar, the success of Amy’s Pastelillos is a testament that Philadelphians are ready to enjoy a varied food culture, and that one-woman shops like hers are just one way to keep traditions alive.

Follow her on Instagram to find where to grab a bite at a future pop-up near you.

Alisha Miranda is a food and travel writer based in Philadelphia. Her stories have been featured in The Inquirer, Thrillist, and Edible Philly, among others. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram...