A lot of things come about upon returning to Ithaca — school work, friends and, possibly most importantly, food. But if you’re venturing to Collegetown or the Commons for the first time as a new student, the abundance of deliciously diverse restaurants may seem a bit daunting; in fact, I just learned this week that Ithaca has more restaurants per capita than New York City, which can only mean one thing: there should be no excuse for you not to explore the fine dining options Ithaca has to offer. From the classic favorites to the mystery meals you may have, everything, despite its cultural derivation, usually tastes exceptional. With four years to go, you have plenty of time to scope out the entirety of Ithaca’s restaurant scene, but for now, here are some classics of Collegetown and the Commons to get you started.
If you’re looking for a good burger somewhere right here in the heart of Collegetown, you can’t go wrong at Rulloff’s. Smother the patty with some cheese and chili, some guacamole and bacon or maybe even some pineapple and teriyaki glaze and dig into the deliciousness. Have some hefty steak fries on the side and you have a satisfying lunch or dinner. If you’re up for a challenge (and don’t feel like trekking all the way to The Pines), there’s also the Monster Burger. It comes with larger portions of the normal sides and is topped with four slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, BBQ sauce and four strips of bacon. Yes, it’s a must-try before graduating. Even though it takes 45 minutes to cook, upon finishing it you get you a t-shirt to advertise your accomplishment … what more could you ask for?
Sick of casual American cuisine? For a slight departure, try Mahogany Grill in the Commons for healthy but hearty options in more of a bistro-style setting. The restaurant’s interior is dark, intimate and classy, but when the weather permits, outside seating is available as well, ideally located to watch passerby. A particularly delectable dish is the steak gorgonzola salad: the meat is juicy and filling, while the crunch of the fresh greens and crumbled cheese complement the steak superbly. This is available for lunch or dinner, along with homemade soups (I recommend the cream of mushroom) and other more fanciful plates including full steaks, chicken and even lobster. Accompany your food with a wine and lemon spritzer and you’re set. It’s not too pricy and is a perfect place for a family outing.
Cross some streets to cross some cultures and head down to Mia. The restaurant serves Asian cuisine and prides itself on its eclectic menu that claims to boast “local produce, sustainably harvested seafood and hormone and antibiotic free meats.” Come here for an upscale date and you won’t be disappointed. The meals are fairly light for the most part and those who are not so adventurous as to try raw fish or a side of pickled radish can easily find a suitable soup, salad, chicken or traditional curry. There is also a bar if you’re in the mood to lounge. The atmosphere is swanky and pleasant and the food is grade A in both quality and taste.
A restaurant that can accommodate couples, families or large groups of friends is Zaza’s. The place is often neglected due to its non-walkable distance from campus, but as far as Italian food goes, it’s top-notch. If you’re not in the mood to experiment, the chicken parmesan is not only a safe bet, but it’s also the best bet. Often cutlets are prepared too thick or too thin, but Zaza’s has perfected the classic recipe, smothering the white meat with mozzarella and balancing the ingredients with an appropriate amount of sauce. Of course they also have a wide selection of appetizers (featuring shrimp, scallops and classic mozzarella, tomato, basil and balsamic combinations) and renowned entrees from herb crusted New Zealand grilled rack of lamb to a myriad of steaks to breaded, pan roasted and parmesan covered eggplant, chicken, veal and fish. Don’t forget the risotto and pasta, which you can drench in red sauce, meat sauce, cream, butter or pesto and perhaps with some seafood mixed in. Save some room, because dessert is a must; sample the restaurant’s chocolate mousse, tiramisu, crème brulee, torte or sorbets and gelatos. Set away from the packed clusters of other Ithaca dining spots, Zaza’s is sure to provide you with a complete Italian dining experience.