In 2005, my husband, Justin, and I spent our summer traveling through Italy, living and working on small farms. On one of them, a dairy in the northern region of Lombardy, we found ourselves swept up in preparations for a formal dinner, open to the public. The historic villa on the farm property was transformed for a night as locals and out-of-towners came to eat and our hosts – the farmer/chef and his wife – cooked and served.
Knowing my husband’s cooking skills, Fabio invited Justin to help make fresh pasta as I arranged the dining room. Roses swam in crystal bowls, candles flickered, and the family shared a wonderful, comfortable rapport with its guests. Although money changed hands at the end of the evening, the level of personal connection felt between those producing the meal and those enjoying it was remarkable to us. This wasn’t the restaurant business as we knew it.
A few years later, when we discovered an 1830’s stone farmhouse on a rural property between Shickshinny and Benton, we knew that we wanted to pursue a similar venture: a very small-scale, seasonal, “farm-to-table” restaurant that we would operate as a couple, with Justin in the kitchen and me in the dining room. We soon connected to the “local foods” community centered around John and Todd Hopkins of Forks Farm.
Their bi-weekly, seasonal farmers market brings together farmers, artisans, and foodies, and this community has always been the heart of our clientele. There, we found customers eager for a restaurant with a focus on fresh, organic produce prepared lovingly and with great attention to detail. There, Old Tioga Farm was born.
The name of the restaurant is also the name we gave the farm, and this is intentional. We think of our farm and restaurant as connected: when you’re dining with us, you’re dining in our farmhouse, eating produce from our garden, meat produced by our neighbors, and as many local ingredients as we can use without sacrificing crucial products like authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that simply must come from Italy.
Our cooking is based on the Italian understanding that the chef is less important than the ingredients themselves, which must be of the freshest and highest quality.
Guests arriving at Old Tioga Farm often enjoy a stroll around the property before being seated. We have two dining rooms – our green room, with a number of tables for small parties, and our burgundy room, for larger groups. The meal begins with a selection of Justin’s breads and proceeds through a six-course, prix-fixe menu, with new dishes chosen weekly. On a given evening at the restaurant you may find an appetizer of delicately fried zucchini flowers; spaghetti with guanciale, Pecorino, and black pepper; chicken thighs braised with onions, sage, and rosemary; or perhaps a house-made peach sorbet. The evening is not rushed, and we encourage our guests to savor the experience.
In the four years since we’ve been open and licensed, we have slowly grown our clientele by word of mouth. Our guests come from within an hour’s drive and increasingly from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. The most telling indication that we are doing something right has been seeing guests come back again and again.
We’ve enjoyed being compared to urban restaurants- cooking that we respect deeply. This is very humbling. Some people ask us why we chose to move out of the city or why we wouldn’t think of opening our restaurant in a city. One of our goals as a restaurant is to provide fine cooking in a rural setting. The rural life has suffered in the past hundrd years, while cities have become centers of culture, especially culinary culture. We want to fight that trend by giving our rural patrons cooking of the highest quality right in their own backyard. We’re making an investment in the local economy by partnering with local farmers and producers. In an important way, we see ourselves as belonging to a small renaissance in rural living.
On our mantelpiece we have a framed quote from Marcella Hazan, which captures the essence of what we strive to do: To make time to eat as the Italians still do is to share in their inexhaustible gift of making art out of life.
Old Tioga Farm is located at 1432 Old Tioga Turnpike, Stillwater. The Naylors can be reached at (570) 855-8108 or www.oldtiogafarm.com.