Turning a corner, I’m suddenly confronted by a fearsome fox. Its eyes gleam, and its wide-open jaws display a set of glistening fangs. It appears poised to take a bite, so I’m lucky that it’s only a taxidermied head hanging on a wall.
The stuffed creature is for sale at the jampacked Antique Pavilion in Bouckville, N.Y., a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet in the center of the state, 45 minutes southeast of Syracuse. The surrounding countryside is divided between farmland and woodland, adding to the village’s rustic charm.
Route 20 cuts through the burg’s center, and the antiques shops lining either side of this main drag are the primary reason why most people step on the brakes — there’s not a single stop sign or stoplight. Most of the antiques emporiums house multiple dealers, guaranteeing an eclectic variety of trinkets and curios, from the incredibly rare to the debatably collectible. Since I first came to Bouckville, in junior high school, I’ve purchased everything from Star Wars figures and comic books to 19th-century furniture and vintage kitchenware here.
I grew up a short distance away, in Clinton, and my father now lives outside Bouckville. I’ve shopped here numerous times and attended the massive antiques fair in August, which boasted more than 2,000 dealers. Sometimes I visit with a game plan; other times I go just to see what treasures have washed up on the proverbial shores. Today I’m browsing with an open mind, but the fox won’t be coming home with me. Neither will the collection of battered Matchbox cars being passed off as hard-to-find rarities. I momentarily consider the suit of armor standing guard to one side. Then I look at the preposterous price tag. Time to move on.
My father is waiting at the front of the store. He’s lounging on a dusty couch next to a mermaid statue, chatting with the proprietor.
“Find anything?” he inquires.
“Not this time. Wanna grab some lunch?”
He pushes himself up. “I could eat.”
Bouckville doesn’t have much in the way of dining, so good meals are always a car ride away. We take a five-minute trip over to No. 10 Tavern in Hamilton. The restaurant, on one of the five corners at the center of town, opened in May. Already, it has become well known locally for its double-patty specialty burgers. I opt for the jalapeño-popper-inspired one topped with an oozy medley of jalapeño cream cheese and cheddar. It’s one of those creations that will either be gluttony-inducing or an abject failure. Luckily, it’s the former, a comforting gut bomb packing a hint of heat and bite after bite of umami-rich satisfaction.
The next day, my father and I first meet for lunch at Cafe Daniele in Utica, approximately half an hour’s drive from Bouckville. The family-run corner eatery turns out unpretentious Old World favorites showcasing house-made pastas and sauces. All meals here have to start with a plate of Utica greens. Made with sauteed escarole, bits of prosciutto, hot peppers, bread crumbs and plenty of grated pecorino Romano, the regional specialty is savory, spicy and slightly sweet. Although I’m already starting to feel full, a generous portion of ragu-drenched, hat-shaped orecchiette follows.
A plastic foam container brimming with leftovers sits in the car a little while later as my father and I make a stop at the Depot Antique Gallery back in Bouckville. At first, the sprawling dealership seems to hold some promise. I consider a series of vintage pantry-staple tins — McDougall’s self-rising flour, Imperial sugar and Folger’s coffee — but ultimately can’t decide where I’d display them at home.
Even though I’m not looking for anything in particular, it’s frustrating to find nothing that strikes my fancy. I’m not sure what that might be, but I’ll know it when I see it. I collect my father from a rocking chair near the checkout, where he’s doing his best not to doze off.
“You up for one more?” I ask. “No pressure.”
“Sure,” he gamely agrees. “One more.”
Bouckville is part of the town of Madison, which has its own strip of shops three miles east down Route 20. All told, there are more than two dozen stores between the two towns showcasing the wares of hundreds of dealers. As I pull up in front of Madison Inn Antiques, the place doesn’t look promising. The squat building seems so small and unassuming compared with many of its competitors.
“Where can I sit?” my father asks as soon as we walk in. He finds a comfortable chair near the front, while I wander through the stalls. Almost immediately, a metal box sitting on the floor, about two feet high and a foot wide with a flaking green paint job, catches my eye. There’s a simple circular vent of perforated holes above the door on the front. Opening it, I find that it’s a bi-level cabinet. I’m still not sure what it’s for until I read the tag: “Pie safe.”
Suddenly, I know what I’ve been searching for. Not that anything can truly keep pie safe from me when I’m jonesing for a slice, but this would be a perfect addition to my holiday pie-making tradition.
“Happy?” my father wonders as I load my new acquisition into the back of the car.
“It’s perfect,” I say. “Just what I didn’t know I was looking for.”
My final destination of the afternoon offers a different kind of slice — Mario’s Pizzeria in Oriskany Falls, a few miles away. The friendly, family-run local institution nails a recipe that reminds me of the New York-style pizzas I ate growing up.
The sauce has just a touch of sweetness, yet it stays grounded in a rich tomato flavor. There’s plenty of mozzarella to satisfy the need for gooeyness, but not so much that there’s a fatty sheen on top. And the crust is foldable, so you can halve your triangular wedge and double-time your eating.
Compared with the uncertainty of my quest in Bouckville’s antiques shops, it’s nice to know exactly what I’m looking for when I walk in.
“Two cheese, please,” I request, before sitting down to think about what color I might repaint my new pie safe.
Martell is the author of “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations” (Possibilities Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @nevinmartell.