10 Places I’ve Never Been: Nonna’s
September 12, 2011
I’ve spent 10 weeks of my summer exploring 10 Places I’ve Never Been. And now it’s time for the Mystery location. A location, recommended by our readers and chosen by our Facebook fans. This mystery stop is Nonna’s Restaurant at The Homestead Resort.
It’s been a few years since I have spent any time at The Homestead Resort. So when my husband and I arrived for dinner we weren’t quite sure where we were headed. I remember the Inn lies at the back of the property with beautiful views of the water, so we drove in that direction. The roads meander through tall pine woods with beautiful condos tucked into the hills. We found the Inn and the Beach Club at the end of the road, but no Nonna’s. So we retraced our path toward the entrance. A few wrong turns provided a reminder of how large The Homestead property is, and how much they have to offer. We passed Stony Brook Lodge with it’s breathtaking views and Camp Firefly where they teach the Orvis Fly Fishing. Finally we turned past the Reception Center and found The Village, and Nonna’s.
We planned to arrive when they opened the doors for dinner at 6pm so I would have a chance to talk with Jamie Jewel, Vice President of Sales & Marketing to learn a bit about The Homestead Resort and the history of Nonna’s. The staff greeted us at the door and welcomed us in for a quick tour.
Nonna’s is located in a section called the Village, which you may recognize as the entrance to the Mountain Flowers Par-3 golf course, and in the winter, their ski resort. The Village is home to several shops, lodging and other dining options for The Homestead guests including Beppi’s and Cavanaugh’s. There’s a play area for the kids and decks overlooking Fiddler’s Pond in the back.
Inside Nonna’s the atmosphere is warm and inviting. Since The Homestead caters to guests traveling as couples as well as families, they’ve gone out of their way to make both groups comfortable. The Porch dining room offers larger tables, banquettes and dining overlooking the pond. The Tavern room includes a bar in back, smaller tables and fireside dining. This room is for adults only. There are a few tables on the deck accessed by the bartender so guests can enjoy a drink outside.
Our tour included a visit to the Loft, a special room above Nonna’s that’s available when large groups would like to dine together, such as a family reunion or corporate meeting. There’s even a kitchenette in the back for future cooking classes. But the loft isn’t open for regular dining hours.
The reason I chose to write about 10 Places I’ve Never Been is to showcase some of the amazing shops, restaurants and businesses that we ‘locals’ forget about, or drive right by. When we returned to the Tavern room I spoke with Jamie about what makes The Homestead Resort a place locals should consider visiting.
The Homestead Resort has begun to recognize the importance of welcoming the locals onto the property to see what’s available. In an effort to reach out to the surrounding communities on Labor Day The Homestead held a community block party for 300 people, inviting residents of Glen Lake, Empire, Lime Lake as well as resort guests. Despite the cold they enjoyed hot dogs and popcorn, sales in the shops, facepainting for the kids and trips via golf cart to the top of the mountain.
The Homestead Resort is a vacation destination with amenities any visitor or local would enjoy — some of which you may not even know about. For instance, did you know The Homestead purchased the King’s Challenge course and gave it a complete make-over? So much so, that under their new name, Manitou Passage, this Arnold Palmer course won Best New Course in 2010 from Golfweek magazine. In the winter the ski hills are open to the public. And they just opened a day-spa on property. Of course, the reason I’m here is Nonna’s. A fine italian restaurant hidden in the pines of northern Michigan.
As we were chatting the server arrived and introduced the menu and wine list. The wine list is quite large, with many options available by the glass. And they had some cocktails that sounded fantastic including a pomegranite martini. I like to support the local Michigan wineries and chose one of few on their list, a Black Star Farms semi-dry riesling. My husband opted for an Italian beer, Moretti.
Our drinks arrived, along with fresh bread, olives and roasted garlic in a basket. Moments later, the chef sent out a special appetizer to whet the appetite: Steak Pizzaiolla. It’s a classic homestyle Italian dish that you just don’t see often on menus. Small bites of beef tenderloin in a savory tomato demi glaze served with thin brushetta. A nice warm treat. Along with the dish came a promise that the chef would come out and chat with us.
Our Facebook fans warned us we would love Chef John. Jamie said, "wait until you met Chef John," so as you can imagine I was anxious to finally talk with Chef John. And moments later, out he came.
Chef John Piombo is not a Michigan native, but his new midwestern digs seem to suit him. With two Italian parents John is fluent in both languages and spent some time in Italy which explains his passion for food and flavor. But I think it’s his personality that attracts new fans to the restaurant, and keeps the staff happy and entertained.
Each night the staff gathers for family dinner, a chef’s choice meal that could be off the menu or off-the-wall depending on what he feels like cooking. The 4:30pm meal offers a time for the staff to taste new dishes, sit down together and prepare for the evening’s service. "We don’t open the doors until 6pm. Not 5:50pm, not 5:59pm. That give us time together and time to prepare."
While many chefs in the area focus on "local" Chef John says, "I’m all about relationships." He works with independent farmers who will come to his doorstep and is building relationships with some of the smaller boutique wineries in the area, like Circa, one of his favorites. It seems he’s full of funny stories about trips to meet with the local merchants.
"Ok, just one more story and I’ll let you go," he teased, as he shared a humorous tale of showing up unannounced at the rabbit ranch and getting a glimpse of something we probably don’t want to think about before we eat. And another story about an order of beef from a Kaleva farmer who arrived with one filet, one strip steak, one rack of ribs — not exactly what chef expected when he placed an order for "one beef."
Shortly after Chef returned to the kitchen the appetizers arrived. Since we weren’t expecting the chef’s selection we ordered a couple dishes to share: crabcakes and a mozzarella & heirloom tomato insulate.
The crabcakes were packed with crabmeat, not fillers, seared in a pan and served on a creamy cucumber puree with a couple dashes of hot chili sauce. Very good. I can never pass up a mozzarella and tomato salad this time of year, so I was glad to see this one was made to perfection. Slices of homemade buffalo mozzarella a top four heirloom tomatoes dredged, but not drowned, in balsamic, olive oil and fresh basil. Both were easy to share and we each enjoyed them.
I’m always impressed when a restaurant pays attention to the details. I loved that my husband’s beer came out with a frosty pilsner glass. The plate for the crabcakes was warm as they were, and the salad plate was chilled. Nothing is worse that getting a cold salad served on a fresh-from-the-scalding-dishwasher plate. So kudos on service.
Speaking of service, our server was incredibly knowledgeable about the dishes, often answering questions about ingredients in the sauces, or making recommendations on the entrees. My husband ended up ordering the Rabbit, and I the Veal Scallopini. They arrived with a side of polenta from the chef.
I tasted the rabbit, as I’m not sure that I’ve ever had rabbit before. Sorry to sound cliche but it reminded me of chicken. It was cooked in a flavorful stewed tomato sauce with fresh herbs. The veal I ordered was full of mushrooms and a rich demi-glaze, but what I really noticed were the fresh herbs. I finally asked the server what they were. "Take a look in the garden on your way out. That is fresh mint sage which we grow out front."
As we cleaned our plates, and finished our drinks, chef John sent out a simple but scrumptious dessert. He flambed huge fresh blackberries with Cake Vodka, and served them over vanilla ice cream. The warm berries exploded with sweetness and you couldn’t mistake the flavor of cupcakes that comes from this unusual vodka. A perfect ending to the meal.
We wrapped up the evening agreeing Nonna’s is a restaurant we’d not only recommend, but plan to return to. The atmosphere in the Tavern was comfortable and welcoming, perfect for couples looking for a quiet night out. The menu offered mulitple selections we were anxious to try —some we admired as they passed by our table in route for another.
Before we left I stopped to photograph the Chef’s Table. This special seating for six just off the entrance offers a unique glimpse into Chef John’s creativity. Guests enjoy 8 or 14 course meals paired with wine. The small-plate courses are completely up to the chef. So if you’re looking for adventure, and you brought your appetite, the Chef’s Table at Nonna’s would be a fabulous treat.
Nonna’s is open for dinner year-round from 6-10pm except Tuesdays. Off-season hours are Thursday – Saturday. Chef John likes to change things up during the year so expect menu changes every 3-4 days. On Thursdays you may find a verbal trattoria-style menu or prix fixe meal option.
Reservations are recommended since Nonna’s is a small restaurant, about 13 tables (not including the loft). There’s outdoor seating for the bar, and some limited patio dining available, "on the three days that it’s warm," Chef John jokes. I can see his south Florida roots haven’t completely adjusted to Michigan’s climate.
You can find Nonna’s inside The Homestead Resort in Glen Arbor, Michigan. Visit their website at www.thehomesteadresort.com and find them on Facebook & Twitter. They’re still working on the wayfinding signage inside the resort, so to locate Nonna’s turn right on Wood Ridge Road, pass the Reception Center and you’ll come to the Village. Parking is on the right. For reservations call 231.334.5150. And, as with all my 10 Places I’ve Never Been locations, you can find them on the Traverse Traveler App. To download the free app click here.
It seems appropriate that the 10 Places I’ve Never Been series ended with a beautiful sunset over Glen Lake as witnessed from our drive home across the Narrows bridge in Glen Arbor. Every time I watch the sun sink into the lake, or behind a dune, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place—America’s Most Beautiful Place, in fact. But… that’s another story.