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Savoring Ithaca

One of the best-kept secrets about New York is that, about an hour north of the Big Apple, the state is a mostly rural and often unsophisticated place.

Case in point: I live near an upstate village where, shopping in our only supermarket, I once asked a clerk where the artichoke hearts were hiding. She looked puzzled for a moment before her face brightened and she asked, "Have you checked the meat department?"

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So in 1997, it might have come as a surprise when the leading "alternative" magazine, Utne Reader, put upstate Ithaca at the top of its list of the 10 most enlightened towns in the United States. But it was hardly a surprise to me. I've lived within 60 miles of Ithaca for more than 35 years and, for those of the Birkenstock and Volvo persuasion, the Finger Lakes college town has long been a hip oasis of great restaurants and shops, intellectual stimulation, a vital music scene and spectacular natural beauty.

Ithaca is a green city, literally and metaphorically. To enter, you pass through farmland and rapidly descend from the hills overlooking Cayuga Lake. From the east, Route 79 turns into a steep, cobblestoned, residential street that drops into the heart of downtown. From the south, after being greeted by an expansive view of the lake and hills, Route 96 descends through a few blocks of student housing and, without warning, drivers must quickly navigate the city's busy one-way streets.

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As in other upstate towns with classical names, many of Ithaca's historic homes are Greek Revival and, even where large declining houses have been turned into student apartments, the neighborhoods are tree-lined and walkable from downtown.

If not for the colleges overlooking the city -- Cornell University and Ithaca College -- the town's history as a prosperous 19th-century port would probably set the tone. The largest inland marina in the state is on the edge of town, and major parks, a theater and popular farmer's market are lakeside. The prime real estate is on or overlooks the lake. Indeed, you can still set sail from Ithaca out into the Atlantic Ocean via the Erie Canal, Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

But since the end of the steam age, academics have become the center of the local economy. Students, whose age makes them receptive to new ideas, enable Ithaca to remain one of a handful of places in America where the alternative culture of the '60s still flourishes.

Collective cuisine

A prime example is the Moosewood Restaurant, the world-famous vegetarian establishment celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It was started by a collective of seven young people with no formal culinary training and little restaurant experience.

Today, with a middle-aged core, the collective has grown to 19 members who have produced a steady stream of best-selling cookbooks while running a restaurant that, according to Bon Appetit, is one of 13 that has revolutionized the way Americans eat (the list runs from Chez Panisse in Berkeley to McDonalds's).

The collective has won awards from the James Beard Foundation, both as a regional restaurant as well as for its cookbooks. In observance of its anniversary, the Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates will be released in October. The restaurant's 10th book is, fittingly, a collection of recipes for parties and special occasions.

With the possible exception of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, it's hard to think of any nationally known food business founded by hippies that has not only survived but thrived, all the while clinging to its counterculture image and principles.

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Tucked into a corner of a refurbished former high school, the 70-seat restaurant is an unpretentious, high-ceilinged place with plenty of attractive woodwork, a bar and lounge, and wood chairs at simple wood tables lighted overhead by old school fixtures.

"If someone told me in 1976 that I'd still be here today, I'd be shocked," says David Hirsch, one of the collective's earliest members.

In the '70s, eating in a vegetarian restaurant could be a grim affair, when ideology rather than tastiness ruled the kitchen. But, from the beginning, Moosewood's founders were never hardcore vegetarians and served a meat entree every day (even today, many members of the collective are omnivores, though meat has been dropped from the menu and replaced by fish).

"We've never made people feel uncomfortable about what they like to eat," Hirsch says. "We took vegetarian cooking, which was considered wacky, and made it a flavor-based part of the mainstream."

Although it grosses $1 million a year and is a destination restaurant that draws visitors from around the world, the Moosewood's low prices don't allow the kind of profit margin that, split 19 ways, is making any of its owners rich. Lunches are $6.50 and dinners are $11 to $15. On Tuesday nights starting in early fall, all entrees are less than $10.

"I'm a soup lover, and their soups are as good as you get anywhere," says Peter Stein, a physics professor at Cornell who started eating at the Moosewood 30 years ago. Stein, who is not a vegetarian, adds, "Their desserts are superb....The chocolate brownie is the best I've ever tasted."

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Hirsch attributes the restaurant's success to its culinary creativity, which has produced more than 2,000 field-tested recipes for the cookbooks. Although only a few hundred of the recipes are served in the restaurant, they reflect a fusion style that, for example, combines Japanese seasonings and Indonesian ingredients to create a stuffed, braised eggplant.

On Sunday nights, the small kitchen produces ethnic dishes. A recent ethnic night featured North African cooking: Moroccan stuffed eggplant, spinach almond beureks (a dish wrapped in phyllo dough), vegetable tagine (stew), and fish with a chermoulla sauce (a spicy melange including lemons, tomatoes and cilantro).

Welcoming the world

Those ethnic influences reflect the fact that Ithaca is a surprisingly diverse community -- 13 percent of residents are Asian. This is largely attributable to the generous resettlement of Vietnamese and Tibetan refugees, plus the large numbers of foreigners at Cornell, which attracts 20,000 students, 16 percent of whom come from abroad.

The Dalai Lama, who has visited Ithaca three times, apparently finds the area hospitable, too: the North American seat of the Dalai Lama is a modest house in a residential neighborhood, where the spiritual leader has established a satellite of his personal monastery in India.

Ithaca's international flavor also gets a literal translation at the Farmer's Market, a venerable institution where you can buy everything from locally grown seasonal vegetables (you won't find ringers selling oranges) to ready-to-eat Sri Lankan cuisine, sushi, homemade jellies, wine, cheese and handcrafts.

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While many small towns offer farmers little more than a vacant lot, the 125 members of the market organization have a classy permanent home at which they gross $4 million a year. With roof lines and a footprint styled after a 13th-century European cathedral, the waterfront market building is open-sided to catch the summer breezes coming off Cayuga Lake.

Live music, dancers, kids shows or shenanigans such as the annual Rutabaga Toss (a zany version of bocce), make the market a fun place to spend a weekend morning or have a lakeside picnic lunch.

Tahery Grover, from Candor, a bedroom community for Ithaca, used to take her sons along when she was a vendor at the Farmer's Market. The market put money in her pocket but, more importantly, helped her sons to deal with people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, she says. Her husband, who earned a degree in electrical engineering at Cornell, came back to teach there at half the salary he was making in industry.

"We've moved away seven times -- and we're back again," she says. "Ithaca is the best of all worlds: If you want cosmopolitan, it's here; if you want rural, it's five minutes away."

College town

With 6,000 students at Ithaca College (the other college on a nearby hill), the two institutions are the dominant factor in the cultural life of this city with about 30,000 residents. Ithaca is the quintessential college town -- irreverent and simultaneously sophisticated and idealistic:

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* EcoVillage, two miles outside of town, is a kind of dream community of 30 highly energy-efficient homes clustered on three acres so that the rest of the 172-acre site remains open for organic gardens, orchards, woods and wetlands.

Families live in their own affordable homes but enjoy the benefits of cooperative living. The so-called cohousing movement, which began in Denmark in the late 1960s, caught on early in Ithaca, and now more than 50 similar communities have been built across the country.

* At the Community Alternative School, part of the public school system, the kids vote with faculty and staff on how to run things, and students grow lettuce hydroponically to supply the school cafeteria. One of the school's graduates, now a teacher at another school, is an alternative fuels enthusiast and shade-tree mechanic who runs his pickup truck on used vegetable oil.

* The public library is powered by a large solar electric system.

* While upstate New York (excluding some large cities) votes solidly Republican, Ithaca once elected a socialist mayor.

* For many years, the city has been using its own local paper currency, called Ithaca Hours, along with federal greenbacks. The currency exchange has been a model for dozens of other communities worldwide.

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* Ithaca is friendly to homegrown entrepreneurs. The recycled brick school building that houses the Moosewood passes for a mall in Ithaca, and there isn't a franchise among its 15 shops.

Similarly, the stores are locally owned in the Commons downtown. It's a thriving pedestrian mall that has been named one of the state's top architectural projects for having preserved a historic small-town look and feel.

The Commons features sculp-ture by local artists and, during the summer, more than 50 free concerts showcase some of the best local talent during lunch-hour, twilight and evening concerts.

Look over top-of-the-line handcrafts, fine art and European porcelain, or, perhaps, stop at the Ithaca Hemp Co., one of several "head shops" downtown, to buy a hand-blown glass pipe. There's also paraphernalia for dogs at a popular pet salon called Doggie Style.

Although the Moosewood is the city's signature restaurant, more than 40 others offer everything from upscale dining to cafe fare, from great bagels to inexpensive Vietnamese. Ithacans sustain an art cinema house, several stage theaters, plus at least six independent bookstores.

Dedicated to science

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One of the clearest signs of Cornell's influence downtown is the Sagan Planet Walk, which is both a scale model of the solar system as well as a memorial to Carl Sagan, the late astronomer.

The center of the Planet Walk is the Sun Station, an obelisk on the Commons. This is one of the few walkable solar models in the world and, if you follow it out to Pluto, you'll go three-quarters of a mile to the edge of the city; you can't walk to the nearest star, however, because it would be as far away as Hawaii.

The miniature solar system extends to the hands-on Sciencenter, an excellent museum for children and families that features 100 indoor and outdoor exhibits, including clever gadgets and displays built by Cornell scientists and students.

An expansion this year tripled the size of Sciencenter, which is strongly supported by the community with cash and volunteer labor.

Although its sprawling 745-acre campus can be intimidating at first, Cornell is classic Ivy League and an architectural feast worth savoring. Start at the information center at Day Hall, at the corner of East Avenue and Tower Road, where you can pick up a map and a list of events, or go on a free, student-guided tour. Consult a free copy of the Cornell Chronicle to see if any of the free or inexpensive art films, lectures, concerts or sporting events appeal to you.

Here are a few other possibilities:

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* Admission to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, designed by architect I.M. Pei, is free, and the museum is usually not crowded. Even if you are not interested in its notable Asian collection, go there for the view: the windows wrapping around the fifth floor offer a stunning panorama of the city and Cayuga Lake.

* Stroll through Cornell Plantations, a 250-acre arboretum and botanical garden, including heritage vegetables and herbs. Drop-in, self-guided tours are free; guided tours are also offered for a small fee.

* If you live in one of the American households that feeds wild birds (43 percent do), you will enjoy the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the premier bird conservation and research center in the United States. Its 224-acre sanctuary and visitor center, with an adjacent 10-acre pond, is an ideal environment for bird-watching and interactive exhibits. In June, the lab, which holds the world's largest collection of bird sounds, opened a $26 million facility that is five times bigger than the former site.

Hiker's heaven

Any fair-minded Ithaca boos-ter would have to admit that other college towns are possibly as culture-rich. Yet, geology makes Ithaca incomparable. The glaciers that blessed central New York with the Finger Lakes also created microclimates around them that are superb for growing grapes. About a dozen wineries on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, which starts in Ithaca, are spread along Route 89 on the 40 miles of the western shore.

Finger Lakes is the oldest wine district in the East. But the most alluring aspect of the area's geology is summed up by the city's popular bumper sticker: Ithaca Is Gorges.

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Three of the state's six gorge parks are nearby. The gorges collect water, which crashes down more than 150 waterfalls within 10 miles of the Commons, including Taughannock Falls, which, at 215 feet, is taller than Niagara Falls.

The falls and gorges made stunning backdrops for movie producers from 1912 to 1920, when the movie industry flourished in Ithaca, then called "little Hollywood." However, the scenic water features are often disappointing in the summer, when the gorges are sometimes nearly dry.

No matter what the time of year, the many trails through the city and nearby state parks make Ithaca prime ground for hikers. And if you are pressed for time, you can take an exhilarating hike without ever leaving the city.

The Cascadilla Creek Gorge trail follows the stream as it tumbles down a spectacular gorge for 1.3 miles, from Cornell to the city. You can enter the trail a few blocks from the Commons at University Avenue and Court Street.

Whether you take this unforgettable trail up to the university or down to the city, there's plenty to engage you at both ends.

Meanwhile, we upstaters may find it a little inconvenient when it comes to finding the artichoke hearts, but many of us are content as long as wild turkeys strut around in the front yard and Ithaca is within cruising distance.

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An ideal day

9 a.m.: Drive to the Ithaca Bakery, on the edge of town, for tea and scones.

10 a.m.: Browse through the Commons, taking in Tibetan imports, bookshops, outdoor sculpture and top-drawer handcrafts by local artists at Handwork.

11:30 a.m.: People-watch from a tree-shaded bench, then walk a few blocks to the trailhead for a one-plus mile hike up the Cascadilla Gorge to Cornell. Count how many coeds, seemingly oblivious to the rushing waterfalls and the steep pathways, pass by while chatting on their cell phones.

12:30 p.m.: Lunch at Vietnam Restaurant, where a tasty bowl of Bun bi Thit Nuong (shredded pork with roast pork vermicelli), a house specialty, costs $6.25.

1:30 p.m.: Walk to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell. Take in the art work, I.M. Pei's architecture and the panoramic view from the fifth floor.

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3:45 p.m. Drive to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (about 3 miles from town) to check out the new $25 million facility. From inside the observation room, watch goldfinches, eyeball to eyeball, through the lab's expensive spotting scopes.

5:30 p.m.: Go for the gold standard of Ithaca waterfalls at Taughannock State Park. The falls overlook is about 15 minutes north of town. You're in luck -- there's been enough rain to sustain a good show.

6:30 p.m.: Dinner at the Moosewood. What have the wizards concocted tonight?

-- Hal Smith

When you go

Getting there: Ithaca is about 300 miles from Baltimore. Driving, take I-83 north to I-81 in Harrisburg, Pa. Continue on I-81 to Whitney Point, N.Y. Follow signs to Route 26 / 11, then take Route 79 west for 30 miles to Ithaca.

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* When you arrive in Ithaca, stop at Clinton House (607-273-4497; www.historicithaca. com / clinton_house.htm), 116 N. Cayuga St., just off the Commons. The historic Greek Revival building is a one-stop shop for brochures, directions and tickets for all local entertainment. For a guide to arts and entertainment, pick up a copy of the Ithaca Times, a free alternative weekly.

Lodging: Ithaca has 17 hotels, motels and inns, and more than 50 B&Bs.; Rooms are scarce during major college weekends, such as commencement and homecoming. For a guidebook to the city and the Finger Lakes area, call 800-284-8422 or visit the Web site www.visitithaca.com.

Moosewood Restaurant, 215 N. Cayuga St., Ithaca

607-273-5327

www.moosewood restaurant.com

* World-famous vegetarian restaurant celebrating its 30th anniversary. Lunches are $6.50 and dinners are $11 to $15.

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Attractions:

* For details about the Ithaca Farmer's Market: 607-273-7109; www.ithacamarket.com

* Cornell University visitor information: 607-254-4636; www.cornell.edu

* EcoVillage is on West Hill, off Route 79, on Rachel Carson Way: www.ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us


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