Posted by: Kath Usitalo | June 28, 2011

Road Food Report: Comfort Food In Ithaca

Welcome to timeless Ithaca, Michigan

So I was driving north on U.S. Highway 127 from Lansing to the Upper Peninsula and saw the sign for Ithaca, about 40 miles north of the Capital City.

Since Paige will be heading to school in Ithaca, New York in August I decided to detour to the Michigan town to see what, beyond the name, the two communities have in common.

The 1902 County Courthouse, Ithaca, Michigan

Yes, there is a connection: Ithaca, Michigan, was settled in 1855 by John Jeffery and named for his hometown of Ithaca, New York.

Both Ithacas are county seats, of Gratiot County, Michigan and Tompkins County, New York.

Both cities have nice old architecture.

Ithaca, New York, is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College.

Ithaca, Michigan is on the “university corridor” between Alma College, Central Michigan University, and Michigan State University.

Ithaca, New York has gorgeous gorges.

Ithaca, Michigan has gorgeous George Bailey as Mayor.

Ithaca, Michigan Mayor George Bailey (GC Herald photo)

(Yes, George Bailey is the name of the Jimmy Stewart character in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” set in Bedford Falls, NY. Seneca Falls, which is just north of Ithaca, NY, claims it was the model for the fictional town.  My first impression of Ithaca, Michigan, is that if it had a rushing river it could serve as the setting for a remake of that movie.)

Ithaca, New York gorge

Ithaca, New York is known for its number and variety of restaurants, including the famous Moosewood.

Ithaca, Michigan has several eating spots including the wonderful Hearthstone Oven Bakery & Cafe.

I stopped in at The Hearthstone Oven late in the day and chatted with Keith Litwiller, who opened the spot 3-1/2 years ago with his sister Kara.

They grew up in a Mennonite family on a dairy farm about 10 miles out of town, and when their brother decided to operate the agriculture business they opted to start the bakery and cafe.

Keith Litwiller owns The Hearthstone Oven with his sister Kara

The siblings gutted a former auto parts store for their original eatery, and six months ago renovated and grew into an adjacent space. “That’s a testament to something or another,” says Keith, “that right during the recession we were able to expand.”

I admitted my ignorance about the differences between the Amish and Mennonites but before I could ask the question Keith said that although his is a conservative religion they are able to operate a restaurant because they do use electricity and modern conveniences—with the exception of radio and television. (Don’t expect WiFi at the cafe.)

The space is simply and cleanly decorated, with a few tasteful signs with religious quotes displayed. It’s an inviting and peaceful place.

As a family paid their tab they raved, unprompted, about the food.

Since I missed lunch I studied the glass bakery case where some cookies and just a few of the popular, softball-sized cinnamon rolls, pecan rolls and loaves of bread remained. I chose a molasses cookie (69 cents); Keith says they make 40 dozen cookies of several varieties each day.

He added that I’d just missed the season for “big, farmer-size helpings of strawberry shortcake on a buttermilk biscuit” using berries from a local farm. I’ll have to plan a fall stop, when fruit for apple desserts comes from a local orchard.

The chicken pot pie at Blue Skies

Because I was heading to Blue Skies and would need supper I asked about the freezer stacked with foil-wrapped meals.

“They’re casseroles, nothing fancy,” says Keith. “Comfort food. That’s what we specialize in (at the cafe).”

Choices include chicken and rice, cheesy enchiladas, lasagna, and poppyseed chicken, in small, medium and large portions ($6.99, $10.99, $20.99).

“We make a family size, to encourage the family to gather around the table and have dinner together,” Keith explains.

I opted for the best-selling chicken pot pie ($6.99) and two days later when I heated it up at Blue Skies, it was delish.

So was the cookie. It carried me through two coffee breaks, and stayed moist over the two days.

Monster molasses cookie, 69 cents

As much as I’d looked forward to and enjoyed my meal at Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, I have to admit that I was more pleasantly surprised with my visit to the Hearthstone Oven in Ithaca, Michigan.

The Hearthstone Oven Bakery & Cafe is worth the short detour off US-127 for breakfast, lunch, sweets or carry-out frozen entrees, Monday through Saturday.

No website. Located at 126 South Pine River in beautiful downtown Ithaca, Michigan; phone 989-875-6836.

Visitor Info Clicks: Ithaca, Michigan

Pure Michigan

Ithaca, New York

NOTE: The classic car Old 27 Motor Tour travels through Ithaca, Michigan on Thursday, August 25

I love farm towns like Ithaca, Michigan

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