Good Eats in the Islands

By Melissa Pasanen
Free Press Correspondent

June 8, 2006
Mark Infante, chef and co-owner of Ruthcliffe Lodge and Restaurant in Isle La Motte, spent every childhood summer at the pretty lakeside hotel that his parents created in 1957 and named after his mother, Ruth, and the cliff-like rocks along the shoreline.

"I grew up right in the kitchen with Dad and learned how to cook from him," he said.

Infante still makes a fresh green salad with thinly sliced radishes, cucumbers, sweet onion and a tasty vinaigrette the way his father Frank taught him. A family-style bowl comes to every dinner table along with warm bread and cups of very good homemade soups like a rich tomato-barley -- or a cold cucumber in the heat of the summer.

"I learned to make that salad when I was eight years old," he said. "I used to beg my dad to let me make it."

Despite the fun Infante had in the kitchen -- and on the expansive green lawn and in the lake -- he went off to college and started a career in finance. "I never thought I'd go into the business until somebody else tried to buy it," he said. "But it kept calling me back."

Anyone who has spent time in the Champlain Islands during the summer will understand the draw. It may lack crashing waves and salty sea air, but Lake Champlain has its own plentiful charms and within a mere 30 minutes from Burlington, you will find yourself in vacation paradise, Vermont-style.

There are multiple state parks to relax in; golf to play (both mini and regular-size); long flat roads to bike down between farms, wineries and apple orchards; calm inlets to canoe or kayak from; historic destinations like St. Anne's Shrine, the Hyde Log Cabin, and marble quarries to investigate; along with a fish hatchery, wildlife refuge and birding trail to explore. (For more specifics, go to Even the Royal Lipizzan stallions of Austria return to the Champlain Islands every summer to escape the Florida heat and perform their famous equestrian ballets.

I'm not sure where the stallions go out to eat, but there are plenty of places for humans to eat and drink well between the many activities. For a sit-down meal:
-- At Ruthcliffe Lodge and Restaurant (1002 Quarry Road, Isle La Motte, 928-3200,, reservations highly recommended for weekend dinner; breakfast $6.50-$8, lunch $9-$10, three-course dinner $20.95-$31.95 and kids' menu $7-$8) Infante and his wife and co-owner Kathy offer dinner nightly in the cozy, pine-paneled dining room and outside under an awning (starting Friday through Labor Day), and then dinner Friday Sunday through Columbus Day. They also offer breakfast daily and lunch Thursday Sunday starting Father's Day weekend through August. From Belgian waffles with strawberries; to the creamy, perfectly cooked seafood Alfredo; to the popular Shrimp Marco with sundried tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, and garlic; and even a Dijon herb-encrusted rack of lamb, Mark does all the cooking, channeling both his father and his Italian family heritage. Kathy oversees service in the well-run restaurant and bakes good, homey desserts like raspberry pie made with local berries, a killer carrot cake, and an ooeey, gooeey chocolate chip cookie pie. The lunch menu of salads, soups, sandwiches, burgers, and a fish catch of the day is served on the scenic lower deck overlooking the water. It is a popular spot for cyclists and boaters, who can use the free moorings.

-- Melissa Pasanen, Free Press Correspondent, and Candace Page, Free Press Staff Writer