Every Saturday, under a rustic waterfront pavilion decorated with strands of twinkling globe lights, hundreds of shoppers mosey from vendor to vendor at the Ithaca Farmers Market. Tote bags spill over with bright, crunchy carrots, leafy sails of kale and chard, glossy purple onions and pungent cloves of garlic. Everything at the market is produced within a 30-mile radius of the pavilion, ensuring only the freshest picks of vegetables, fruits, eggs, meats and cheeses. Learned Ithaca locals know that the best time to snag the cream of the crop is at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings, when the market first opens. If you’re an early riser, consider a morning trip to beat the crowds that surge in around lunch until closing time at 3 p.m.
The produce is some of the best in the region, but what truly makes Ithaca Farmers Market shine is the abundance of incredible food vendors, each which feature deliciously unconventional cuisines from around the globe. Nearly all of the stalls advertise tasty vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options to satisfy every preference and diet. The vast array of choices is a welcomed sensory overload, so upon arrival, make your rounds through the pavilion to take it all in, snatching some free samples of local cheeses, fruits, honey, cured meats and pestos along the way.
Start your day off with something sweet, perhaps a soft apple cider doughnut from Little Tree Orchards, or an icing-drizzled cinnamon bun from The Good Loaf Bake Shop Tibetan Cooking. While you’re at it, grab a couple steamed Tibetan momos with a side salad of bright fuschia cabbage.
Make your way to Just Desserts, but don’t be misled by its name. The stall’s real draw is the massive, portable wood-fired oven parked back behind the counter, which has salivating foodies lining up to order piping-hot personal pizzas. One crispy, bubbly, perfectly-charred pie is a fine appetizer to nosh on with friends, or a sizable meal for one.
A cool breeze carries the scent of lemongrass and Southeast Asian spices over the thick crowd in front of Khmer Angkor Cambodian Food. Friendly staff members send paper boats of traditional chicken amok curry and fragrant vegetables out into the sea of customers. Forced to flee for their lives from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, the owners carried the vibrant flavors of their homeland with them to the Finger Lakes, eventually establishing the award-winning market favorite. Ask owners Bong and Marin Sen for recommendations on what to order.
At the far end of the pavilion, La Paladar Cuban Food offers a traditional, no-frills fare of rice and beans, sweet potatoes and marinated chicken. Behind the counter, an employee lowers freshly sliced plantains into sparkling oil, and draws out crispy, mildly sweet golden nuggets which he arranges neatly onto a long skewer for a perfect on-the-go snack.
Its neighbor, Yum Yum Korea is a little less orthodox, dishing out fragrant beef, pork and veggie kimchi tacos, garnished with colorful fresh vegetables and drizzled with your choice of spicy sauce.
Vendors selling Thai iced tea, Indian samosas and other eats of the East are sprinkled all throughout the market. Among them, Asian Taste serves up steam buns, potstickers, crispy egg rolls, sesame balls, noodles and fried rice.
The market is also an ideal destination for atypical, giftable finds. The racks of Carolina Perez Designs burst with eccentric, vividly patterned clothing and accessories at reasonable prices. Comb the eclectic collections of quirky purses adorned with portraits of Frida Khalo and floral printed hair scrunchies, in which you’ll be sure to find something special.
Shopping at the farmers market allows customers to talk with the producer directly. Vendors are always more than happy to talk about their products, dishing out samples, informational tidbits, recommendations and recipes to help you make the most of what you purchase.While comparing the delicate, floral flavors of clover honey to the rich, powerful tang of buckwheat at Waid’s Honey and Candles, I learned from an employee that each unique taste corresponds with the type of plant from which the nectar was extracted. After sampling the large assortment, pick up a jar of your favorite flavor for your evening tea and a beeswax candle for mom.
Escape the overflowing pavilion to the outdoor, lakeside seating area, where students and locals perch like seagulls upon the wooden docks, indulging in a smorgasbord of curries, pizza pies, dim sum and chocolate crepes. Kayakers extend their paddles in rhythmic strides, while dock-loungers sway their dangling legs above the calm waters of Cayuga Lake to the beat of live music. It’s an idyllic scene that almost feels choreographed.
On your way out, grab an ice cream sandwich and a cup of fresh-squeezed lemonade to-go from Dennis’ Homemade Ice Cream. Upon first glance, Dennis’ is an unsuspecting, modest little joint, where an employee hand-presses a lemon on the spot for each and every cup. The homemade ice cream sandwich, a block of smooth, luscious cream nestled between two soft chocolate wafers, is the star of the show. The sheer simplicity of the combo is what makes it perfect. Two humble classics, kept so simple and made so well.
The market is a snapshot of Ithaca’s offbeat and charming culture: a hodgepodge of interesting flavors, artisanal goods and passionate people. While a group of students share a pizza pie, an older woman with a flowery hat picks up her weekly produce. A professor waits in line behind a large-bearded man with a beat-up guitar strapped to his back. It’s a special place. For a few hours each weekend, an extraordinarily diverse community unites under one pavilion to celebrate delicious local food.
Ithaca Farmers Market is open for spring on Saturdays, April through October from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays, May through October from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the historic Steamboat Landing park (545 Third St.). Live music performances occur every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Many vendors accept credit cards, debit cards and Venmo, but many do not, so make sure to have some cash on hand. Bring your own bag for produce.