November 28, 2012

Warm Your Heart (and Tastebuds): Ithaca’s Best Winter Comfort Cuisine

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To children, winter means cold weather, cold weather means snow and snow means no school. Fast-forward to college, and such days off due to bad weather are rare (although for Cornellians, they are literally nonexistent). Moreover, considering that the weather gods have decided to take us on a little ride down Global Warming Road, Ithaca has yet to see its usual, infamous snowfall this winter. While the chubby-cheeked child in me mourns the death of everything that made winter great for her, the adult in me is more rational in that I have found ways to deal with the cold temperatures but lack of snow. This coping mechanism is food, and I am going to tell you the best places to go to fill your stomach with warmth and deliciousness to beat those winter blues.


You need not travel far for your comfort food fix. A favorite among many, Stella’s is the best spot in Collegetown to escape the cold of winter. Its dim lighting paired with the ever-changing artwork adorning the walls gives off a slightly eccentric but still relaxed vibe, in which you immediately feel accepted and almost cool, even. I personally prefer the café side of Stella’s, because I can socialize, study and dine. Their menu changes seasonally and incorporates locally produced ingredients; my current new favorite is the flatbread topped with brie blended with mozzarella, fresh arugula, bacon and shallots. It is one of their smaller plates, but it is actually large enough to be shared. If you are looking for something a bit more substantial, the one-of-a-kind chicken pot pie is delicious. It comes served inside of a local buttercup squash “bowl” that you can actually eat, and while filling enough for a meal, it does not leave you feeling heavy afterwards.


For me, Italian cuisine is the ultimate comfort food. The dishes are usually some hearty blend of meat, sauce, cheese and carbs, leaving you warm, happy and satisfied. Surprisingly, there are not many Italian restaurants in Ithaca with virtually none in Collegetown — CTP does not count — and of these few, Ciao is the best place to go this winter.

Located on Hickory Hollow Lane (or if you are map-illiterate like I am, near the Ithaca Mall), Ciao is known for its wood-fired pizzas. It was opened a year ago by Boatyard Grill co-owner Mark Campagnolo with the goal of serving comfort food. The prices are extremely reasonable and the ambience is similar to that of Olive Garden: Unpretentious, rustic and homey. A great choice that anyone would enjoy is the margherita pizza, a simple combination of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and garlic. If you are in the mood for something more filling, a personal favorite is the lasagna. Made in the traditional manner without frills or “innovative twists,” this dish is most comforting with its authenticity. You will leave Ciao feeling content after a night of good food and good company.

Mahogany Grill

I love going down to the Ithaca Commons during wintertime. With its eclectic mix of restaurants and specialty stores, the Commons is a fascinating but unpretentious place to explore. It has a slightly hipster, small-town feel that makes you feel like you are in an episode of Gilmore Girls, and it reminds you that life does not need to be as stressful as it is on Cornell’s campus.

Mahogany Grill is the first restaurant I went to in the Commons upon coming to Cornell as a freshman, and I have never forgotten how good it was. The French onion soup, topped with gruyere swiss cheese, instantly warms you up from the inside, out. If you are in the mood for something richer, the baked mac and cheese is creamy and delectable. Mini penne is covered with a thick three cheese sauce, topped with sourdough breadcrumbs, and then baked. The melding of flavors in the oven results in a dish that leaves you on the verge of a food coma.

Maxie’s Supper Club and Oyster Bar

Truth be told, I was always a little scared of trying out Maxie’s. Being a creature of comfort, I rarely deviate from my four go-to types of cuisine (American, Korean, Italian and Thai); thus I was reluctant to taste the Southern / Creole / Cajun-inspired menu at Maxie’s. Plus, I was extremely intimidated by the “supper club” part of its name. But after my housemates and I decided that it was time to branch out and try out new places to eat in Ithaca, we ended up at Maxie’s…and it was amazing.

Maxie’s represents the culture that invented comfort food, and the dish that best proves this is the shrimp and grits, which comes served with a thick tasso sauce with a kick. It comes in a half size in addition to the full one, so choose wisely; my friends have had trouble finishing the half size. For those of you who don’t like grits (like me), the “chicken-fried” chicken is delicious. Served with gravy, mashed potatoes and the vegetable of the day, the chicken is moist and juicy on the inside, and perfectly crispy on the outside.

Original Author: Michelle Kim