Away from the big city and an empire that includes twenty restaurants, ten cookbooks, a line of cookware and food products, several TV shows and even wood-fired brick ovens carrying his name, Mario Batali basks in being two million miles from Manhattan—his measurements; our map makes it more like 832, but you get the idea. Instead, Mario with his wife Suzi and two sons retreat to Northport, a tiny dot with a year-round population of around 500 located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, a stretch of land jutting into the waters of Lake Michigan. After discovering the area when visiting friends, twelve years ago the family bought and renovated a 1940s trout camp and made it into their home, complete with a wood-burning pizza oven imported from Italy. And to keep this feeling of rustic north woods splendor, the pony-tailed chef draws a line, not in the sand, but a longitudinal one instead.
“I try not to go below the 45th parallel when I’m here,” Mario says as we stroll up Mill Street to Barb’s Bakery, where he has promised to buy us the best cinnamon twists ever.
One of the major über frogs in the vast pond of food celebrities, Mario doesn’t swagger or act like a star. Instead the James Beard award winner has gone “native,” thriving on small town camaraderie and fitting in with the crowd.
“I love them,” he says enthusiastically when someone compliments his cap, which features the logo for House of Dogs, a favorite eatery in nearby Traverse City. “They say ‘Hi, Mario’ when I walk in and then I still have to stand in line just like everyone else. That’s great.”
Today he also stands in the long line that winds through Barb’s, past gleaming glass display cases filled with delicious and calorific baked goods. Locals greet him by name and then go back to their pastries and coffee. Visitors do a quick double take when they see the bright orange clogs and the familiar face. A few ask, respectfully, if they can take his photo with their cell phones. The answer is yes and so they do as the queue moves forward until it’s his turn to order. Someone compliments his ponytail and he mentions that a company will soon be selling Mario Batali ponytail ties and I make a note to buy one for myself.
Outside, Mario hands out cinnamon twists and we stand on the sidewalk in the historic downtown—its circa 1850s wood buildings painted a crisp white and accented with brightly colored shutters—munching on what are indeed the best I’ve ever tasted.
“It’s like having a great big refrigerator,” says Mario, finishing his twist and throwing out his arms in a gesture that seems intended to encompass not only the village but the surrounding rural landscape with its long stretches of sandy white beaches, rolling hills dotted with vineyards and fruit orchards, small scale farms dedicated to organic and sustainable produce and tiny neat early 19th-century villages tucked along the water’s edge. “There’s the fishing, the great farm markets, the wineries, the artisan food producers. This area inspires my cooking completely. I don’t go shopping with a list, I just buy things, get home and figure it out.”
Farming has always been a mainstay here, even before 1802, the year it was decided to build a wharf on the bay. Originally called Cow Town because of the preponderance of bovines sighted along the edges of the cove, Northport not only was a fishing village, but went through a lumber and ship building boom attracting a large majority of Norwegians drawn to a place where the climate was similar to their own. I shiver thinking about life in this remote place some 200 years ago when the wind blasted fiercely across the water and the snow was so deep marooning residents during the long, icily beautiful winters. But the Batalis not only love the short brilliant summers and blazingly colorful fall but also the winter when they go sledding, have movie nights and explore.
A winter weekend might mean a stop at Tandem Ciders, producers of both sweet ciders as well as hard, like their Cidre Royale—a blend of McIntosh, Northern Spy, Rhode Island Greening, IdaRed, Golden Delicious and Winter Banana apples, all from nearby orchards, that after fermenting, is 9 percent alcohol. Other forays could be a stop to buy raclette at the Leelanau Cheese Company south of Northport in Suttons Bay, fresh fruit pies from the Grand Traverse Pie Company, and organic and grass-fed meats from Leland Mercantile on the west side of the peninsula.
Sometimes a road trip is a discovery of a new edible. One time it was the Mexican sour gherkins sold at Bare Knuckle Farm, a small-scale farm offering a diverse list of items that include two types of sorghum, four varieties of leeks, almost thirty winter squashes and a large selection of heirloom tomatoes with names like Sub Artic Plenty, Costoluto Genovese and Egg Yolk. Oh and don’t forget the Transylvania Red garlic.
“They are so unique,” Batali says about the gherkins. “I’d never had them before. I toss them in rice wine with dill, basil and kosher salt and let them sit for a while. They have a crunch like caper berries.”
Batali and his family also started growing gooseberries as well as ground cherries, a type of fruit covered with thin paper similar to that of a tomatillo that they bought locally and found perfect as a pie filling.
And then there are the holiday dinners. For Thanksgiving there’s roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes, and a de-boned turkey stuffed with cornbread, Moroccan lamb sausage and dried cherries and roasted in the pizza oven until the skin is crisp and the meat tender. Dessert could be cherry clafoutis or crostata di ciliegie made with, of course, Michigan cherries frozen during the height of the summer season for a meal such as this.
“Christmas is always a ham, tortellini en brodo and chicken Parmesan, braised green kale—all in the pizza oven,” says Mario with such enthusiasm and warmth that the aroma of the ham baking seems to waft through the air. “People from New York sometimes wonder what we eat here, but I tell them this is no culinary wasteland—this is wonderful and real food.”
The following recipes are courtesy of Mario Batali.
Stuffed Turkey alla Lombarda
1/2 boneless breast of turkey
4 tablespoons butter, plus 2 tablespoons
2 ounces prosciutto
1 cup roasted chestnut pieces
4 ounces turkey giblets, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1 medium Spanish onion, chopped
1/2 pound luganega sausage, cooked half in oven and thinly sliced
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 pound ham, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons flour
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Butterfly open turkey breast to 1/2-inch consistent thickness, skin on (or have your butcher do this for you). In a 10-inch to 12-inch sauté pan, heat 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat until foam subsides. Add prosciutto, chestnuts, turkey giblets and onion and cook until onion is golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Add cool luganega sausage, grated cheese and eggs and mix well.
Stuff turkey by laying mixture all over flesh and then roll up like a jelly roll. Stuff ham under skin and tie entire roast several times with butcher twine. Place in roasting pan just large enough to hold it and rub with rosemary and sage. Pour wine and chicken stock into pan and place in oven. Roast 50 to 70 minutes, or until internal temperature is 165 degrees F. Remove from oven and remove turkey to carving board and allow to rest 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, degrease liquid in pan, preferably with a degreasing cup with a spout starting at the base. Place liquid in a small pan and bring to boil. Knead remaining 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons flour to form paste and whisk it in, bit by bit, until slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Carve turkey into 3/4-inch slices and serve with sauce and perhaps some sautéed apples.
Tortellini en Brodo
(Tortellini in Broth)
6 cups brodo, recipe follows
1-1/4 pounds tortellini, recipe follows
Bring the brodo to a boil. Add the tortellini and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until all the tortellini are floating to the top of the pot. Ladle equal portions of tortellini into 4 warmed pasta bowls. Ladle the hot broth on top of the tortellini, top with grated Parmigiano.
To make the brodo:
1 pound beef scraps
1 pound beef or veal bones
1 pound beef tongue, cut into 4 or 5 pieces
1 (4 to 5 pound) stewing hen, cut into 6 pieces
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 celery rib, coarsely chopped
10 to 12 quarts cold water
Salt and pepper
Place the beef, bones, tongue, chicken pieces, onion, carrot, and celery in a large soup pot; cover with the water and bring almost to a boil, very slowly. Reduce the heat to simmer before the mixture boils, and allow to cook for 4 hours, skimming off the foam and any excess fat that rises to the surface. After 4 hours, remove from heat, strain the liquid twice, first through a conical sieve and second through cheesecloth, and allow to cool. Refrigerate stock in small containers for up to a week, or freeze for up to a month.
To make the tortellini
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces ground turkey
4 ounces ground veal
4 ounces ground pork shoulder
4 ounces prosciutto, finely diced
4 ounces mortadella, finely diced
1 egg, beaten
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3-1/2 to 4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Filling: In a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed, large saucepan, heat the butter and oil until it foams and subsides. Add the turkey, veal and pork shoulder and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the meat is well-browned and begins to release some of its juices. Add the prosciutto and mortadella and cook for 5 minutes more. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Place in a food processor and mix to combine. Add the egg and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and mix well to combine. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and add at least 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg and mix again. Set aside in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Pasta: Mound 3 cups of flour in the center of a large wooden cutting board. Make a well in the middle of the flour, add the eggs and oil. Using a fork, beat together the eggs and begin to incorporate the flour starting with the inner rim of the well. As you incorporate the eggs, keep pushing the flour up to retain the well shape (do not worry if it looks messy). The dough will come together in a shaggy mass when about half of the flour is incorporated.
Start kneading the dough with both hands, primarily using the palms of your hands. Add more flour, in 1/2-cup increments, if the dough is too sticky. Once the dough is a cohesive mass, remove the dough from the board and scrape up any leftover dry bits. Lightly flour the board and continue kneading for 3 more minutes. The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Continue to knead for another 3 minutes, remembering to dust your board with flour when necessary. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and set aside for 20 minutes at room temperature.
Roll the pasta into sheets using a pasta machine. For the desired pasta sheet thickness, gradually pass the dough through the settings starting with the widest and continuing to the number 9 setting.
With a pasta cutter or a knife, cut the pasta into 1-1/2-inch squares. Place 3/4 teaspoon of filling in the center of each square. Fold into triangles, press out any air around the filling, and press to seal the edges. Bring the points of the long side together to form a ring, and seal between your fingers.
Set the tortellini aside on a sheet pan, wrap well with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. Reserve for later assembly.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1-3/4 cups chopped onions
4 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup coarsely grated peeled carrots
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes in juice
10 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
3 cups fresh breadcrumbs (from crustless French bread ground in processor)
2 large eggs
1 cup (approximately) all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons (or more) olive oil, divided
3 cups coarsely grated well-drained fresh water-packed mozzarella, divided
1-1/4 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1-1/4 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, divided
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic; sauté until onions are soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add carrots and thyme; sauté until carrots are soft, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes with juice; bring to boil, coarsely crushing tomatoes with potato masher or fork. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until sauce thickens and is reduced to generous 5 cups, about 1 hour. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. (Sauce can be made 1 day ahead.) Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated. Rewarm sauce before using.
For the chicken
Place chicken breast halves between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Using meat mallet or rolling pin, pound chicken breasts to 1/3-inch thickness. Sprinkle both sides of chicken with salt and pepper. Spread breadcrumbs on plate. Whisk eggs to blend in medium bowl. Spread flour on another plate. Coat both sides of chicken with flour, then eggs, then breadcrumbs.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add chicken to skillet and cook until brown, about 2 minutes per side, adding more oil as needed (chicken will not be cooked through). Transfer chicken to platter. Spread 1 cup sauce over bottom of 15-by-10-by-2-inch glass baking dish. Arrange 1 layer of chicken over sauce. Spoon 2 cups sauce over. Sprinkle half of mozzarella, Parmesan, and Pecorino over. Repeat with remaining chicken, sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan, and Pecorino. Bake until cheeses melt and chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and marjoram and serve.
Crostata di Ciliegie: Cherry Tart
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup superfine sugar
Pinch fine sea salt
1 lemon, zested
2 sticks chilled sweet butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup cold vin santo, plus a bottle for your friends
2 cups red cherry jam
2 or 3 turns of the peppermill
Pulse the flour, sugar, salt and zest 2 or 3 times in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks together with the cold vin santo. With the machine running, add the egg/sherry mixture to the dough through the feed tube. Process 5 to 6 seconds or until the mass combines and leaves the sides of the bowl. Permit the pastry to rest for 30 minutes, wrapped securely in plastic, in a cool place.
Thin the cherry jam a bit with a little hot water, stirring well to combine. Add a few grindings of pepper to heighten the flavor of the cherries and stir again. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Roll out the dough in a free-form circle of about 12 inches, and transfer it to a buttered baking sheet or a sheet lined with parchment. Leaving a 2-inch border uncovered, spread the cherry mixture over the dough, folding, pleating, and tucking the border of the dough up over the fruit.
Bake the tart for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the pastry is deeply golden and the fruit is glossy. Cool on a rack for several minutes and serve warm.