While New York City sweats, Mario Batali rides out the summer at his fish camp near Traverse City, Michigan. The chef gives us his lowdown on the coolest, snark-free lakeside food scene in America
I first came to the Leelanau Peninsula ten years ago. My wife, Susi, went to college in Michigan, and she had friends near Traverse City. We rented a house on a little beach for a week. The next year it was two weeks, the next year three, then four. We ended up buying a 1920s fish camp on Lake Michigan, did some renovation, put in a pizza oven, and fell in love with the place. Now we're here from July 1 until Labor Day weekend.
The food scene has really exploded in the region. There are farmers' markets and hip-looking people farming and butchering. It's very cool. Even in Northport, our town of less than 1,000 people, there's a great weekly farmers' market in the summer. The chefs involved in the scene celebrate what's here; they're not trying to be anything they're not. Now people are coming for gastronomic tourism.
All winter I look forward to eating two things: pizza from my wood oven topped with Leelanau Cheese Company's Raclette and serrano chiles, and cherry pie from Grand Traverse Pie Company. I prefer tart pie cherries, even to eat out of hand, but in Michigan there are Rainier, Queen Anne, and Golden cherries that are that big and as hard as apples.
Of course, the fish is delicious: lake trout and whitefish. There's also grass-fed beef and local pork. The traditional Midwest culture of cheese and sausages exists, but it's so low-key.
Local winemakers started off trying to make California-style wines--Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay. They weren't bad, just not very interesting. In the last few years they've planted grape varieties like Cabernet Franc and Riesling that make more sense for the area. So the wine has come around 1,000 percent in the past decade. There's also Tandem Ciders, which makes a few different hard ciders, as well as sweet cider during apple season.
A Chubby Mary at the Cove
When we go out to eat, it's casual. There's a place in Leland called The Cove that has killer chicken sandwiches and burgers. My favorite restaurant in Traverse City is The Cooks' House. It's farm-to-table and it's delicious. There's a seafood place on the east side of Grand Traverse Bay called Siren Hall. We take a boat across the bay to the little harbor there, tie up, and walk 200 yards to the restaurant. It feels so good.
The beauty of Traverse City is that in the world many of us live in--really, any big city--we think we have to call ahead to get a table for dinner. Here you call and say, "Hey, I'd like to have dinner at 7:30," and the answer is always "No problem, how many?" That's it! Maybe they are booked, but they never act like it. It's the same with golf--and, really, with everything else. There are no lines, there is no tension, nobody's waiting to jump ahead of you. Like I tell all my friends: Traverse City is the antidote for New York City. And, by the time the end of August rolls around, New York City is the antidote for Traverse City. You can live without tension only so long before you go crazy. --as told to Scott DeSimon
Locally raised produce
Mario's Leelanau Peninsula
You can fly into Traverse City from several major cities. Warning: Like Mario, you might want to spend the whole summer exploring.
1. Fishtown: "Back in the '50s, there was a commercial fishing fleet and shanties on these docks. Today, it's a preserved area with restaurants and shops."
The fish sandwich at Boone's Prime Time Pub
2. Boone's Prime Time Pub: "They have this simple fried-fish sandwich with tartar sauce on a bun that's insane! Oh, and if they have fried smelts that day, get 'em."
3. The Cove: "Sitting by the waterfall overlooking the Leland marina and enjoying a Chubby Mary--garnished with a smoked chub fish--is one of my many summer pleasures."
4. Bare Knuckle Farm: "Their pigs and geese live in their orchards. The meat certainly tastes good--I'm not so sure how it's working for the trees, though."
5. Pleva's Meats: An old-school butcher in Cedar; I love the cherry-studded beef burgers called Plevalean that we grill at home. Totally unique.