Treasures to be found between the coasts

I’m as guilty as the next East/West Coaster when it comes to dismissing The Big Flyover — that middle section of our country where supposedly there is nothing worth seeing or doing. But on a recent visit to northeastern Ohio, I was once again (happily) proved to be oh-so-wrong.
We flew into Canton/Akron airport and stayed outside of Warren, a semi-rural area where the recession and unemployment has hit hard. The jobless rate in this corner of the state runs between 7 percent and a staggering 17 percent. You can see evidence of this in the many abandoned homes and shuttered businesses in and around the city of Youngstown, a former shell of itself. Once a thriving steel manufacturing base, the city has resigned to being smaller, and the citizens are trying to replace the dilapidated houses with small parks and open spaces. There also are still some beautiful tree-lined streets on the south side that continue to be showplaces — stately brick mansions with proudly maintained landscaping and blossoming trees.
Locals will tell you that “young people” from this area go away to college and don’t return, mostly because there’s nothing to hold them. However, drive a half-hour in any direction and you’ll discover some of the most picturesque farm country anywhere — scenery that resembles a movie set, or maybe a picture postcard from the 1950s.
I expected to see Norman Rockwell characters emerge from the doorways of the meticulously kept homes, with their manicured lawns and gardens, surrounded by lush-and-leafy hardwood trees that don’t exist west of the Rockies.
Early summer is especially beautiful in northeast Ohio. The spring flowers still thrive and a few trees still display white and pink blossoms. The temperatures remain in the comfortable range and the mosquitoes haven’t yet mustered full forces.
We were invited to drive north toward Lake Erie late one afternoon and visit one of the many wineries that appear to be thriving despite hard times. The drive up state route 534 through
villages with amusing
and intriguing names (Mesopotamia and nearby Delightful are my favorites) proved to be, well, positively delightful. Each little burg has a general store, a gazebo in a round-about, and perhaps a carriage-only parking zone. This is Amish country, and it wasn’t long before we encountered a half-dozen buggies on the two-lane road. These transportation throwbacks are driven mostly by middle-aged, bearded farmers or teen boys, some of them barefoot. Their neat-as-a-pin farms are scattered throughout this area.
There are many sects of Amish — mostly in the Midwest — but they are universally known for living without modern conveniences of any kind. They also have a reputation for serving bountiful home-cooked meals in their homes to busloads of tourists. (An interesting note: The Amish eat this same hardy fare of meat, potatoes, gravy, farm vegetables and breads, but because their way of life demands such physical rigor, they have the lowest incidence of heart disease in the country.)
Our destination was the Ferrante Winery in Harpersfield Township, just south of Geneva. Apparently there is something about the microclimate on the southern shore of Lake Erie that is perfectly suited to growing grapes, which the Ferrante family began doing more than 70 years ago. The restaurant, however, opened just 20 years ago. The large, contemporary wood-and-brick building has spacious dining areas and a large patio overlooking a pond and 65 acres of vines. Both the dining room and patio were booming with visitors, enjoying the guitarist, singer and small band.
Dinner was superb; my baked sea bass was some of the best I’ve ever had, and the others in our party gave a thumbs up to the veal parmesan and a spicy chicken and linguine dish. The pinot grigio was pleasant but not outstanding, according to my husband, but my niece was highly enthusiastic about the Ferrante sweet whites. A visit to the gift shop after dinner proved this. She came away with three bottles for the home larder.

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