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  • Tara Crutchfield

Bandidas

The couple behind Bandidas pop-up café, Gio and Gabriella Favilli-Vigoreaux, could teach a masterclass in self-expression. Everything about the brand they’ve created together is intentional, inimitable, and just plain good. The two-woman team operating out of the Catapult Kitchen Incubator started as Vicky G’s and Casita Verde.


A Central Florida native and first-generation American, Gio would travel to Nicaragua several times a year to visit family growing up. She delighted in meals made up of fresh fruits, vegetables, beef, and chicken from her grandparents’ farm in Masaya, Nicaragua. That love of food translated to a pursuit of the culinary arts down the line. Gio moved to New York to study at the International Culinary Center and worked in restaurants and bakeries in the city after graduating. She also worked in food media and recipe development for Vice Media’s food department, Munchies. The pandemic prompted a move back to Florida, where she started Casita Verde as a creative outlet and a way to introduce Polk County to Nicaraguan food.


Gabriella grew up in Winter Haven. After attending the University of Miami, she moved to New York for culinary school. She spent the next eight years working in restaurants, food media, and recipe development in test kitchens for Epicurious, Good Housekeeping, and Cherry Bombe before returning home in 2020. She pulled from her Puerto Rican roots and formal culinary training to start Vicky G’s, offering handcrafted empanadas with unique fillings and other “twists on Latin food.”


About a year and a half ago, Gabriella and Gio joined their ventures to start a new pop-up café called Bandidas. They closed Vicky G’s (as they began offering their hand-formed empanadas through Bandidas) and continue to use Casita Verde as a subsidiary for provisions like hot sauce and kombucha. “It just made sense,” Gabriella said of the transition. “We knew we were going to get married. We’d gotten engaged, and we were spending all our time in the kitchen, side by side.”


The couple’s love story intertwines with food from its genesis. They’d met initially when Gabriella was home from New York to visit family, and Gio was selling shave ice at a market. Gio reached out later for information about culinary school as she planned to attend the same school Gabriella had eight years earlier.


Before moving to New York, Gio showed up unannounced at Smith Canteen in Brooklyn, where Gabriella worked as the culinary director and head baker. In what could only be culinary kismet, Gio remembered, “I didn’t tell her I was going to be there, and we were actually wearing the same shirt when she came out of the kitchen.” The block-printed shirt was one Gabriella had purchased from Gio during her last visit home.


ONCE A BANDIDA, ALWAYS A BANDIDA


The name of their pop-up comes from a term of endearment. “As a kid, my parents used to call me a bandida because I was super mischievous and trying to make people laugh,” Gio said. “I was like a little rascal always showing up after playing outside, covered in dirt with scraped up knees – my bike chain connected to my jeans.”


Gabriella said, “On the grand scale, it feeds into our desire to do things our own way and not go about anything in the traditional way.” The Bandidas babes are uninterested in the ‘traditional kitchen brigade’ setup. “We’re just doing our own thing,” said Gabriella. Her wife nodded in agreement. “Totally still identify with being a bandida.”


Bandidas fare melds their Nicaraguan and Puerto Rican background, formal culinary training, and what they’ve learned working in the industry. “I think a lot of people assume that we only make Latin food, but that’s such a small part of what inspires us,” said Gabriella. “Of course, I grew up eating empanadas, and she grew up eating Nicaraguan food. We sell a lot of things that were taught to us by our mothers, our grandmothers, but we are both classically trained, so we did learn a lot of other types of cuisine along the way.”

An excerpt from their website notes, “From pop-up markets to wholesale pastries, our menus are ever-evolving to highlight the seasons and our current inspirations.” And much of what they do now is inspired by their extended time living in New York. “The focaccia for me feels so Brooklyn,” Gabriella said. “There was definitely a focaccia sandwich moment there at one point.”


The duo also draws from travels and techniques learned from their favorite cookbooks – always with credit to the source. “It’s really important to credit where you get your inspiration from,” said Gabriella.


Both women remember the foundational food that solidified their confidence in cooking. For Gabriella, it was her chocolate chip cookies and hippie scones. “They represent a time in my life when I was working in food media and test kitchens. I got hired to be the baker at a café that was transitioning from getting their pastries wholesale to having an in-house pastry program,” she said. Kerry Diamond, owner of Smith Canteen, was also the editor of Cherry Bombe, where Gabriella worked years prior as the magazine’s first employee. “She gave me a few months to play, and in those few months, I tested a lot of things.” Baking the final iteration of that cookie and scone is marked in her memory for the sheer accomplishment and because Gio eventually worked at the bakery. “So it kind of represents us, too, in a weird way because we both had to make them there but never together, and now we’re making them together,” Gabriella said. 


Gio remembers developing sardine galettes – her first published recipe. She’s glad to have that same freedom to create treats that break tradition through Bandidas. With Casita Verde, she was firm on offering authentic Nicaraguan cuisine. “Now with Bandidas, if anything, it feels more ‘me’ because I’m not purely Nicaragüense – I’m all things. I’ve learned so many things and have so many relationships with different recipes and experiences I’ve had.”


The guava and cream cheese layer cake stands toe to toe with her galettes as a touchstone treat in her repertoire. “I’ve recently gotten really obsessed with making layer cakes, and I knew that the guava and cream cheese one would be a hit,” she said. “I love making these cakes because they’ve sort of become a blank canvas where I get to design the outside of them however I want. Lately, they’ve been pretty whimsical-looking, and I love it.” 


Gilded galettes and pretty pastries are Gio’s domain. She’s always been into art and working with her hands. “I love it, and I think that comes out in the food,” she said. Her creativity doesn’t stop with decorating desserts. Gio drew the Bandidas logo and turned her handwriting into a font for the brand. She also produces a bi-annual zine called Paloma. Unstimulated after returning to Florida, she thought, ‘What if there was a zine where there were a bunch of different voices and representation?’ So Gio made it herself – a collection of photojournalism, recipes, art, and poetry. Gabriella called the hand-stapled, block-printed zine “very Rocket Power.” Look out for the next issue of Paloma on the Bandidas website.


PUTTING DOWN ROOTS


Gio finds her most joyous moments are thinking about the future of their business. “At times, it feels like it’s not getting here quick enough because I feel like we’ve been grinding for so many years,” she said. “I know we’re going to get there. A place where our kids can grow up and our nieces and nephews can work. We’ll have that place to express ourselves in every way that we want – through food and colors and branding.”


The couple envisions Bandidas as a local bakery selling beautiful, seasonal pastries, among other things – a model Gabriella has admired elsewhere through her travels. “The charming irregularities of a homemade pastry versus a mass-produced pastry – that means a lot to me,” she said. “I always want to keep it feeling small even as we grow.” Though there is no set-in-stone timeline for a brick-and-mortar shop, the two say change is in the air.


GIRL POWER 


Both say they feel lucky to have worked under women in New York. Gio’s first line-cook job was under head chef Kia Damon, who also hails from Florida.


“I had a unique experience for New York in that I only ever had a female boss,” Gabriella said. Right out of culinary school, she was hired to help launch Cherry Bombe, a magazine focused on women and women-identifying people in the food industry. “I was always reporting to some badass lady with an extensive career from restaurants to publishing and beyond,” she said.


“It really does help you,” Gio said. “Obviously, not every woman that leads a kitchen is perfect and supportive. I’ve had my fair share of women that tend to carry that patriarchal [attitude] probably because they went through it. But it does feel good [to work with women].” Not just women, she noted, but being around Queer folks or anyone who knows what they’re going through has been affirming. “You feel it and acknowledge it, and you never forget it.”


Gio admitted to feeling more seen in New York, more impressive even in a sea of people. “Coming back here, it was hard to get people to trust that you know what you’re doing, and you’ve been doing it for a while,” she said.


“It’s hard to know if it’s because we’re women or because we’re new faces (even though we both grew up here) or because we’re Latin, or if it’s because we’re Queer or a combination of a lot of things people aren’t used to,” said Gabriella. “If I had a dime for every time somebody told me how we should be making this empanada or why don’t we have Cuban sandwiches.”



Along with continued mentorships from their time in New York, Bandidas named DOU Bakehouse owner Diana Cortes-Blanquicet as a guide in navigating their business. “She has been so accessible and transparent and honest about what she faced when she was starting out to where she is now,” said Gabriella, a quality she’s found rare in the local food scene. “We can all help each other. There’s room for everyone.”


Gio called Cortes-Blanquicet “a mentor,” Gabriella added, “Everyone who works for her speaks highly of her, and when we’re lucky to have employees, that’s what you aim for.”


Foodies can order online or find Bandidas on Saturdays at the Winter Haven Farmers Market and Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market. The pop-up café recently entered the wholesale market at Agape Agora in Winter Haven, offering goods like whole wheat salted chocolate chunk cookies, pear and pistachio galettes, and more. Check out their website below for catering packages.


What advice do the Bandidas have for fellow women in the culinary space? “Help other women,” said Gabriella, not missing a beat. Gio added, “And it’ll come back to you.”

 

Photography by Amy Sexson


FB: @BandidasLKLD

IG @bandidas_lkld

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