Ithaca: A City for Foodies

The Moosewood Restaurant is celebrating 40 years of service. Photo by Justin Zoll

“Ithaca, NY – Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality” reads a popular bumper sticker here. Anyone who has ever descended the hills overlooking this sleepy town can attest that the view alone is perception altering.

Beneath the watchful eye of Cornell University’s clock tower rests the Downtown Commons, a pedestrian mall that serves as Ithaca’s cultural epicenter. Home to artisans, booksellers and restaurateurs, it stands as a bastion of progressive enterprise.

In terms of eateries, the commons offers a multitude of options. In fact, last summer, Ithaca was named one of eight “Best American Small Towns for Foodies” by bootsnall.com, a one-stop indie travel guide. In 2010, Ithaca was sixth on a list by Bon Appétit magazine of “America’s Foodiest Towns” (population under 250,000).

Atomic Lounge, located on the west end of the commons, is known for its array of cocktails, gourmet flatbread pizzas and live music. Patrons can enjoy dining in the restaurant’s outdoor European-style alley. The restaurant sources local vendors including Tree Gate Farm, a family owned diversified farm on Ithaca’s West Hill; and Lively Run Goat Dairy in Interlaken.

For dessert connoisseurs, Madeline’s on the east end of the commons offers more than 18 selections of after-dinner indulgences. Pastry Chef Teresa Hutchins oversees the menu, which includes strawberry rhubarb cobbler, Tiramisu and Viennese walnut cake. Madeline’s is also celebrated for its Euro-Asian entrees, spirits and cosmopolitan decor.

Taste of Thai, near the commons’ center, serves up some of the city’s most sought-after Asian cuisine. Patrons can savor the best of the Orient, including a variety of curries, soups and salads. The restaurant’s success has inspired the introduction of a second location on Meadow Street.

Moosewood’s milestone

The Moosewood Restaurant, now in its 40th year, has stood at the forefront of Ithaca’s culinary movement. In 1993 it was recognized by Bon Appétit as one of the most influential restaurants of the 20th century. It has since earned international renown.

“Moosewood Restaurant made it possible to cook creatively on a vegetarian diet; they made a mark on American culture with their ideas about eating,” says Brenda Marston, curator for the Collection of Regional History at Cornell’s Kroch Library.

The restaurant’s name comes from a book on self-reliance, first published in 1970, called Notes to Myself, written by minister and counselor Hugh Prather. It’s fitting, then, that the rest-aurant committed to a sustainable model – one that included the use of regional foods – long before the term “locavore” was coined.

Moosewood’s menu changes daily based on what’s local, fresh and in season. Lunch is updated by 11:15 a.m.; dinner by 5:15 p.m. One dinner entrée, “Navajo Stew” served in April, featured “local Potenza Farm organic black turtle beans, sweet potatoes, colorful bell peppers, zucchini and tomatoes, simmered with smoky chipotles, cumin and cilantro; served with vegan cornbread and sour cream.”

“We’ve always sourced local purveyors,” says Wynnie Stein, a member of the “Moosewood Collective” – 14 women and five men – who own and operate the restaurant, and help write its famous cookbooks.

”Customers expect our components to be fresh.”

Today, Moosewood’s local partners include Fall Creek Produce, Ithaca Bakery, Cayuga Pure Organics and Ithaca Soy, among others. The restaurant also offers regional wines and beer.

“Part of our mission,” notes David Hirsch, another member of the collective, “has been to shine a light on the ways you can create vegetarian meals that are nutritious, while maintaining a good source of protein. We want to provide something more extravagant than what you’d make at home.

“We’ve done a nice job of popularizing tofu,” he adds. “You have to think of it like a chameleon. It can assume many different guises depending on how you season it.”

Moosewood is located in the DeWitt Mall, a renovated brick schoolhouse on the corner of Seneca and Cayuga streets. In the 1990s, the restaurant expanded, more than doubling its space. The dining room is voluminous, with high ceilings and abundant natural light. During the summer months, outdoor patio seating is available. The restaurant prides itself on bountiful portions. One thing’s for certain – if you dine at Moosewood, you won’t leave hungry.

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New Cookbook in September

Stein and Hirsch attribute Moosewood’s longevity to its award-winning and bestselling cookbooks. “They expanded the whole picture,” Hirsch says. “We were no longer a regional phenomenon.”

“In the beginning, cooks scribbled these recipes in the kitchen,” Stein says. “Word-of-mouth and the success of our cookbooks contributed to our notoriety.”

Published in response to consumer demand, Moosewood has 12 books in circulation, two of which – Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home and Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites – have earned the prestigious James Beard Award. In September, the restaurant’s 13th cookbook, Moosewood Restaurant Favorites, will be published by St. Martin’s Press. Its content was generated from previous cookbooks, and highlights many of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. One percent of all royalties from the sale of the book will be donated to Healthy Food for All, a partnership of family owned farms whose aim is to make fresh, locally grown produce accessible to households with limited incomes.

For more information about Moosewood Restaurant, visit moosewoodcooks.com or call 607-273-9610.


by Jon Ulrich