SALEM — As bakery owner Malita Fiore has learned, the life of a pastry chef is no piece of cake.
At 2 a.m. while most people are tucked snugly beneath the blankets, Fiore already is in the kitchen, wrestling with endless layers of croissant dough. She has endured painful blisters while shaping sculptures out of boiling hot sugar. She’ll be the first to admit that she’s spent much of her adult life working in restaurant kitchens where stressed-out cooks hurl words as sharp as kitchen knives. Still, she carries on — and blissfully so.
“It’s in my DNA,” the energetic thirty-something said. “My father is Sicilian and he’s very intense and passionate about food. We used to make pasta from scratch so there was a natural transition for me into restaurants where they were like “Oh my God, we must get the ravioli done!”
After 10 years working as a restaurant pastry chef, these days Fiore is channeling her creative energy into Malita Fiore: a French-style patisserie that opened in downtown Salem in September. The bakery boasts everything from individual-sized hazelnut mousse tortes and eclairs to towering custom-designed wedding cakes with sugar roses so lifelike that they seem to have sprung from a bride’s delicate bouquet.
On a recent morning, the smell of apple tarts drifted from behind a glass pastry case, where brightly colored French macaroons beckoned like pastel candies. Fiore was dressed in a white chef’s coat, her dark hair pulled up in a no-fuss ponytail. She left the warmth of the kitchen and settled down at a café table to share her story.
Fiore, a Salem native fresh out of Northeastern University, in her early 20s was determined to become a lawyer. Her younger sister, Athena, helped to change her path. In 2002, Athena enlisted her sister’s help working on a high school fund-raiser. Malita’s job was to cook and serve food to 300 people.
At first, Fiore — who was working in an office at the time — was terrified. But she succeeded in creating a menu and serving the large group, and afterward she realized she liked cooking “a lot better than sitting behind a computer screen.”
“It was the most exhausting and rewarding thing I ever did,” she said.
Weeks later, high school menu in hand, Fiore walked into the Strega restaurant in Salem (which is now closed) and asked for a job in the kitchen. Executive chef Arnold Rossman took a liking to her and decided to take her on.
“Malita had never worked in a kitchen before, but she was a natural; very intuitive and very eager,” said Rossman, who now works as general manager for restaurateur Keith McNally in New York City. “She also knew how to work on a timeline. She was organized and focused.”
Long afternoons of intense training followed, with Fiore often putting in extra unpaid time. The restaurant owner, impressed with her passion, paid for classes with French pastry chef Delphin Gomes.
Fiore was eventually promoted to head pastry chef. Eager to expand her knowledge, she signed up for six more months of classes with Gomes, who is now an instructor at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
“Delphin opened up this whole new world to me of sophisticated French pastry,” she recalled. “I discovered these French competitions where pastry chefs created whole cities out of sugar.”
After two years at Strega, Fiore left for an opportunity at Chillingsworth, an upscale restaurant on Cape Cod. There she got a chance to embrace her playful side. “The goal was to surprise and entertain the customer,” she said. “I would make these fancy deserts like towers with caramel spires that had acid in them that made them bounce like Slinkies.”
Later, time spent working in Tokyo at the Imperial Hotel helped to inform both her palate and her recipes. “I tasted all these new things and I had all these experiences I bring to the American cake,” she said.
Recent custom-designed wedding cake flavors have included orange cardamom with candied rose petal buttercream, and green tea with wild cherry buttercream.
Four months ago, after years of dreaming of owning her own business, Fiore opened her shop at 83 Washington St. Like her father, Stefano Piccioto, 69, whose interests run from raising chickens to listening to Vivaldi, Fiore considers herself diverse, and seems to effortlessly balance her sophisticated taste for French pastries with a girl-next-door sensibility.
Although the bakery, with its elegant white tables, can seem a bit fancy at first glance, it has attracted a fair share of regulars content to hunker down with a cappuccino and a book. Athena, dressed in a black and white ruffled apron, is a cheerful presence behind the counter, alternately helping her sister with baking and assisting customers. On the pastry case, above a wide array of American cupcakes and French pastries, sits a jar of fresh cannoli shells, ready to be filled with sweet ricotta. “These are here because my father was belligerent about it,” Fiore said. “He was like ‘You must have cannoli.’ ”
Mr. Fiore stops in a few times a day to check in on his two daughters. “He’s very gregarious,” Fiore said. “Invariably one of the customers says, ‘I’m here because of your father.’”