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We’re headed to the western edge of the Upper Peninsula, to a faraway land of tremendous pines, abandoned mines and abundant Italian food. My husband and I glimpse the sign through the hot summer rain and know we’ve arrived: Welcome to Iron Mountain, Proud Hometown of Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci. The famed MSU basketball and Detroit Lions coaches were first graders together at the Immaculate Conception school on the Northside, where the Italians in this working-class town settled. Iron Mountain is so close to Wisconsin, we have to turn back our watches to Central Time so we’re on time for dinner at Fontana’s Supper Club.
The deluge drenches our necks as we run along Fontana’s windowless stone exterior to find the door. The first door opens to the kitchen—a quick waft of spice and the glint of pots—the next is locked, the third is just right. We’re ushered through the wood foyer into a traditional cocktail lounge with upholstered half-moon booths and a wine cellar. Photos of Izzo and Mariucci are framed like family portraits on the walls. We slip into the supper club code of behavior: drinks in the lounge, place your dinner order with your cocktail waitress. When the hostess seats you, salad and warm garlic bread are already waiting at the tall, wood-backed booth. Each is its own little island, with a personal dimmer switch above the shaker of Parmesan. We set our mood to warm glow.
The wine is poured in graceful, tall goblets, and we watch as platters of trout, porterhouse and ravioli go by. The waitress arrives at our table and says, “There you gooo,” with the sing-songy vowels of an entrenched Yooper accent.
We have hand-cut steaks, soft bread with a glossy crust, cords of tender homemade linguini with secretly prepared clam sauce. It’s rich with mushrooms and garlic that was sautéed only until just golden. But first, a moment for Fontana’s meatballs in a lusty red sauce, or what’s known in Iron Mountain as sugo or gravy: tomato is the star, but it’s not the only note—each bite is like a full orchestra. The slow-cooked sauce is not salty and not overly herbal, it’s nuanced and deep and coats the meatball. This is a sauce that, even though it’s made in a kitchen on the edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, comes straight from Italy.