The wooded rolling hills and twisting lanes of the coastline between the suburban bustle of Port Jefferson and the bucolic charm of Riverhead are among Long Island’s prettiest, and in the fall the trees put on a spectacular show. They almost, but not quite, upstage three undiscovered culinary gems in this part of the world—Wading River, Rocky Point and Miller Place.
So on that next crisp Saturday when you are longing for the countryside and the kids are clamoring for a pumpkin patch, realize there’s an alternative to the bumper-to-bumper traffic that starts a mile before you hit Briermere Farms. And you need not just a dining plan, but really more of a travel guide to—you heard it here first—ShoNoFo (“Short of the North Fork”). Throw a couple of freezer packs into the cooler, get in the car and go.
It makes sense to begin at the beginning—that is, at La Plage in Wading River, the easternmost village in these pages, and work westward. La Plage (“the beach” in French), which sits steps away from the town beach, is a weathered low-slung structure that has occupied its windswept location since 1996. Its influence has given rise to great food in the surrounding environs like so much sourdough starter.
Chef-owner Wayne Wadington is aware his restaurant has long been a refuge for clued-in day-trippers. “In the fall, the line for the North Fork starts at the William Floyd Parkway,” he said. But “the people who know about us will turn off 25A at Randall Road and come up here.”
In the early ’90s, the building was occupied by a casual fish-and-pasta place called Flipper’s Fish House, but shortly after Wadington moved around the corner, it went out of business. “At the time, I was working at Pasta Pasta in Port Jefferson and I was thinking how nice it would be to live at the beach and work at the beach.” He teamed up with a pal from Pasta Pasta, Anthony Scali, with plans to open “a simple fish shack.” But when they brought on a third partner, Cornelius (“Neal”) Gallagher, another “local kid,” everything changed.
Gallagher had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and worked at Bouley, among other Manhattan restaurants, so when he came onboard, the menu at La Plage abruptly switched from basic grilled fish to Chatham cod with caramelized turnips, gooseberries and a chive “ocean broth.”
“Even the mashed potatoes were complicated,” Wadington recalled. Although he had virtually no cooking experience, he spent the next six months working alongside Gallagher, “got a CIA education from him for free” and took over the kitchen a year later when Gallagher left. (Gallagher’s post–La Plage career took him back to Manhattan where he steered the seafood restaurant Oceana to national renown, to Suffolk County again, where he was the corporate executive chef for Bohlsen Restaurant Group and then out to sea; he is currently vice president for food and beverage at Celebrity Cruises.)
Over the decades, Wadington has settled into a cooking style that blends high and low. One of his most popular items is the rigatoni which, on the one hand, is essentially pasta and tomato sauce but, on the other, involves sun-dried tomatoes, Manchego cheese, shrimp and a final flambé. (“That’s Neal’s DNA.”) Other can’t-take-off-the-menu items include a green apple salad with blue cheese, walnuts, and mâche, composed with care and dressed with a Sherry vinaigrette, as well as house-smoked beef “carpaccio” and duck confit on fresh chive risotto.
Even with the limited capacity dictated by the pandemic, business at La Plage has picked up. “People are so ready to travel, from the City, from Nassau, and there are these ‘new’ people who have rented houses out here,” said general manager Meredith Hoffman.
Hoffman also attributed Wading River’s recent higher profile to the 2016 opening of the Shoppes at East Wind, a retail “village” that borders (and shares ownership) with East Wind Long Island, the hotel-conference-center-catering-hall-spa at the intersection of Sound Avenue and Route 25A, and two places worth spending time in are Cheese & Spice Market and Wines by Nature.
Before she opened Cheese & Spice Market, Patty Kaczmarczyk spent decades in the restaurant business, including 10 years at La Plage. A longtime Wading River resident and booster, she noted that the town had no good source for cheese and the two closest establishments—C’est Cheese (now closed) in Port Jefferson and The Village Cheese Shop & Café in Mattituck were about 15 miles away.
Kaczmarczyk set about rectifying that situation, and her cases boast a rotating inventory of about 50 different cheeses, among them domestic standouts such as Bandaged Bismark, a raw sheep’s-milk cheese made by Grafton Village Cheese in Vermont and aged and clothbound, like a British farmhouse Cheddar, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Stars of the cured-meat world include finocchiona sausages made from Mangalitsa pork and, on occasion, Culatello di Zibello, the even-more-soigné cousin of Prosciutto di Parma. There is also coffee from Shirley’s great roaster, Tend, loose teas from Harney & Sons, and pasta from Setaro in Naples. One wall is given over to jarred spices, from anise to za’atar.
The little shoppe around the corner, Wines by Nature, has a similar feel. For three years, owner George Eldi has been cultivating a demand for wines and spirits from small, family-run operations. “There is so much excitement in finding these gems,” he said. Eldi’s wines start at $5.99 (for Carta Vieja’s Chilean cabernet, merlot or sauvignon blanc), and his “bread and butter are whites under $20, reds under $30.”
Between the Shoppes at East Wind and La Plage is the actual village of Wading River, one of the most charming on Long Island. It arrays itself alongside twin duck ponds, home to many mallards, fewer wood ducks and a solitary green heron. If you need reviving, Brekky is there with roster of coffee and tea drinks, smoothies and bowls built on açaí, pitaya and yogurt.
You will also find North Tavern, a venture that tests the limits of the phrase “family owned and operated.” Drew Wendelken is the executive chef, assisted by his nephew, Justin. Drew’s brother, Brian, his wife, Carol, and Brian’s wife, Denise, run the front of the house, along with Brian’s daughter, Jessica.
Drew and Brian grew up in the business; their father, Thomas, ran the Country House in Stony Brook from 1978 to 2006. So when they took over the building that became North Tavern in 2018, they took a good, long, clear-eyed look at what they were getting into. “We knew we were off the beaten path, and we’re also not a tiny place,” Brian said. “We were not going to be able to live off business from the surrounding towns if this was the kind of place you come to once a year for celebrations—we want people coming twice a month.”
That means, in addition to meaty little crab cakes artfully drizzled with Dijon sauce and a steak with potatoes three ways, at the heart of the menu are well-executed, well-priced crowd pleasers such as a “mountain” of chicken-cheese-Buffalo nachos and a juicy burger with all the fixings.
A few paces east of North Tavern is Mesquite Tex-Mex, which arrived in 2014, an offshoot of the Sound Beach original (now closed). Owner Craig Scali went to high school with La Plage’s Wadington (Wadington’s original partner, Anthony Scali, is Craig’s brother) and was involved with a number of local restaurants before settling down with one place that operates five days a week and, since the pandemic, only for dinner and mainly for takeout. “I like the streamlined nature of the restaurant now,” he said, a nature that could only be achieved in a location he proudly described as “obscure.”
“Throughout the years, I’ve asked myself what my aspirations are. To own a bunch of restaurants?” Scali mused. Whereas he has never had a moment’s doubt about his passions. “I love to hunt, fish, play hockey—bucks, ducks, pucks—and one Mesquite lets me do that.”
Scali has a crack team behind the counter at the restaurant and a menu full of tacos, burritos, quesadillas and salads. The kitchen’s true fire power is directed at the specialty tacos, such as the shrimp BLT (grilled shrimp with bacon, salsa fresca and a touch of mayo) or the bestselling duck taco.
Head four miles west on North Country Road and you’ll reach Rocky Point. Although the place lacks Wading River’s picture-postcard looks, it has plenty of mid-century charm, perhaps best exemplified by the magnificent Rocky Point Discount Tires sign that greets you as you enter town. (When Mavis Discount Tire took over the business in 2008, it wisely left the circa-1959 sign in place.)
A block past the main intersection, you’ll arrive at a singular establishment, Pickle Packin’ Papa. Although the nonedible merchandise (including pickle pens, pickle pencils and pickle plush toys) is not for sale, there are jars upon jars of pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and more. Joy Glas, unavoidably known as “the pickle lady,” packs more than 30 different pickled items, including the bestselling full-sour garlic dills and the half-sours she calls “new cucumbers.” Lately, she’s been doubling down on spicy: jalapeño pickles, hot Spanish olives and spicy giardiniera fly out of the store.
The north-south axis of Rocky Point is Broadway. It’s a grand name for a street that runs less than a mile and it attains maximum grandeur at Broadway Market, which, with its exposed ductwork, subway tile and reclaimed wood—as well as Counter Culture coffee, kombucha and craft cocktails on tap—looks like it was airlifted from Brooklyn. Owners Ann Olenick, a baker, and Shasho Pole, rancher of grass-fed beef, opened up shop in 2018.
Olenick’s cakes and cheesecakes (sold whole and by the slice) have become local standbys. Recently she started to stack layers of cakes and cheesecakes into single, creamy-crumbly edifices that, predictably, are selling like hotcakes. Pole’s beef shows up in the Market Burger on a house-baked bun with hand-cut fries. You’ll also find pulled-pork sliders, vegetarian Buffalo cauliflower and roasted lemon chicken. This season brings meatloaf sandwiches and kielbasa-lentil soup. In addition to seven indoor tables, Broadway Market has a patio and a backyard equipped with stylish lounges and tables. Last year, Olenick said, customers were sitting outside well into fall.
Less imposing than Broadway Market, but no less worthy is Del Fiore Italian Market, founded in 1974 by Salvatore D’Elia. (Salvatore, his brother, Felice D’Elia, and their brother-in- law Carmine Galeotafiore had opened Del Fiore in Patchogue three years earlier; it is still operated by the Galeotafiore family.)
When Del Fiore opened, it was the easternmost pork store on Long Island’s North Shore. “If you wanted a sopressata,” said D’Elia’s daughter, co-owner Camille Pabon, “We were the last stop before Orient.” Pabon and her sister Lorian Prince grew up in the shop. Prince, the younger sister, said, “Everybody in the family was always here—there was no place else to be.” Around 1995, the daughters formally took over the business from their father. “It used to be our customers would say ‘I’m going to Sal’s,’ ” Pabon said. “Now it’s ‘I’m going to see the girls.’ ”
Pabon and Prince renovated “the floor, the ceiling and everything in between” in 2018, but the place retains its homey appeal as well as parts of the original ceiling beams, from which hang dried pork sausages, sweet and hot. In the refrigerated case are fresh pork sausages, chicken and lamb varieties for those who refrain from (or tire of) pork, and casing-less patties for sausage lovers who want to eat them like burgers.
But the days are long past when an Italian shop could live on sausage alone. Del Fiore makes its own overstuffed ravioli, manicotti, stuffed shells, stuffed mushrooms and stuffed peppers as well as sauces and fresh mozzarella. The full line of Italian imports includes cheeses, canned tomatoes, olive oil, pasta and even playing cards, aprons and espresso cups.
Miller Place, which stretches south from Long Island Sound, may encompass the strip malls of Route 25A and the pine barrens and gravel pits of central Suffolk, but the little historical center wears its 300-plus years with pride. The hamlet is named for the first permanent settler in the area, Andrew Miller, whose 1720 house is now maintained by the Miller Place–Mount Sinai Historical Society. Right across the street is Miller’s great-grandson’s house, built in 1824, and home to a succession of restaurants, including the (aptly named) Secret Road Inn and Dublin Delights since 1963. But its current incarnation as Orto is what has put Miller Place on the culinary map.
When Eric Lomando opened the place (“orto” is Italian for “vegetable garden”) in 2012, he already owned two of Long Island’s best restaurants, Kitchen A Bistro and A Trattoria, both in St. James. But he sold the latter to its chef, Stephen Gallagher, in 2013 and closed the former, after 20 years, in 2018, enabling him to focus all his talent and energy on Orto. While the St. James–Stony Brook axis is one of Long Island’s premier dining destinations, Lomando enjoys the more laid-back vibe in Miller Place where, he said, “there’s a decided lack of pretense.” In good weather, tables spill from the spacious dining room onto a deck and the front lawn. Wine lovers should know that Orto has a concise list of bottles and glasses both interesting and well-priced—or you can bring your own wine and pay no corkage fee. And while initially he worked to make his cooking “more accessible,” these days it’s full-throttle Lomando.
Bread is baked on the premises and served with a dish of fresh-and-fruity olive oil from Spoleto. The menu changes daily but almost always features a stellar fritto misto. Lomando dredges skate, shrimp, littleneck clams and calamari in a mixture of flour and ground rice (carnaroli, no less) and serves it with a thick, rich garlic aioli. A starter of blowfish tails fra diavolo is a new addition, as are chestnut gemelli with duck ragù and a risotto of mushrooms and heirloom squash.
The cooler weather has also inspired Lomando to slow-cook halibut and adorn it with a hazelnut-mushroom vinaigrette. You’ll also find red wine–braised lamb shanks with polenta, pork Milanese with roasted fingerling potatoes and Taleggio fonduta, and duck breast with wild rice and fig agrodolce. The references here are clearly from Italy, but they converge with ingredients and surroundings that are completely American.
Whether seated in Orto’s oak-beamed dining room or on its spruce-shaded lawn, it’s hard to believe that this culinary idyll is less than two miles from the nearest Applebee’s/Buffalo Wild Wings/Starbucks. But that just adds to the Brigadoon-like magic of ShoNoFo, visible only to those who know where to look.
Meanwhile, down on the farm
Routes 25 and 25A are lined with farms offering local produce. Here are three great ones.
ANDREWS FAMILY FARM (1038 Sound Ave., Wading River): Three generations of Andrews work the 70 acres at the intersection of Sound Avenue and Hulse Landing Road. Sage, the world’s friendliest Labrador retriever, is on the scene to play with the kids while you peruse the produce and more. More info: 631-929-0039, andrewsfamilyfarm.com
LEWIN FARMS (812 Sound Ave., Calverton): Corn maze? Check. Pumpkin picking? Check. Roasted corn, U-pick tomatoes and apples, cut-your-own Christmas trees? It’s all there at Lewin Farms, along with a farm stand the size of an airplane hangar that sells local produce and much more. More info: 631-929-4327, lewinfarm.com
MILOSKI’S POULTRY FARM (4418 Middle Country Rd., Calverton): Founded by Will and Molly Miloski in 1946, Miloski’s is now run by their grandson, Mark Miloski, Sr., his son, Mark, Jr., and nephew, Arthur Worthington. Turkeys are the main event here, numerous enough to enable the farm to fulfill 4,000 Thanksgiving orders without taking any reservations. But the modest shop is a year-round source for superb rotisserie ducks (raised elsewhere on Long Island) and the Island’s most extensive array of exotic meats, among them alligator, boar, elk, kangaroo, ostrich and rattlesnake. Cash only. More info: 631-727-0239, miloskispoultryfarm.com
BREKKY: 2 Sound Rd., Wading River; 631-886-2441, brekky.business.site
BROADWAY MARKET: 643 Broadway, Rocky Point; 631-849-1729, bmropo.com
CHEESE & SPICE MARKET: 5768 Route 25A, Wading River; 631-886-1521, cheesespicemarket.com
DEL FIORE ITALIAN MARKET: 39 Broadway, Rocky Point; 631-744-0398, delfioreitalianmarket.com
LA PLAGE: 131 Creek Rd., Wading River; 631-744-9200, laplagewadingriver.com
MESQUITE TEX-MEX: 2034 North Country Rd., Wading River; 631-886-2886, mesquitetexmex.com
NORTH TAVERN: 2028 North Country Rd., Wading River; 631-886-2102, north-tavern.business.site
ORTO: 90 North Country Rd., Miller Place; 631-473-0014, restaurantorto.com (No credit cards)
PICKLE PACKIN’ PAPA: 593A Route 25A, Rocky Point; 631-821-5595
WINES BY NATURE: 5768 Route 25A, Wading River; 631-886-2800, winesbynatureny.com