PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Small towns all over the country balloon in the summer, filling up with tourists who swarm the boardwalks and cafes to soak up the summer sunshine. Cape May, Ocean City, Newport. But Minnesotans have better reasons than most for taking advantage of post-midsummer days. And little towns like Park Rapids can be the kind of places where tourism meets small town life which meets al fresco dining.

If dining on the patio doesn’t seem to fit the mood, all of the accessories to lake life's culinary ventures can still be found in a few blocks in between First and Fifth on Park Rapids’ iconic Main Street, or within a block to your right or left.

“Sweets to the sweet,” said Hamlet’s mother in a rather droll commentary on the better-late-than-never school of how to win someone’s heart. She wasn’t talking about candy, but, since then, it has been a saying aptly applied to candy, and Park Rapids has more than one candy shop.

Park Rapids is home to several candy shops along Main Avenue. Eric Daeuber / The Forum
Park Rapids is home to several candy shops along Main Avenue. Eric Daeuber / The Forum

It’s hard to understand why fudge seems ridiculous when one sees it in a window on one’s home turf, but somehow turns into real food when one becomes a tourist, but it’s a well-documented culinary fact of travel. This is universal among all ages on vacation, as is the craving for salt water taffy, but the older one gets, the greater one craves reminders of a past so foggy as to be unreliable. But the cravings are still easily satisfied by remakes of Neolithic favorites that bring back the summer of (pick a year from the dropdown menu). Cuzzins, Enjoy and Aunt Belles are within two blocks of each other and, among them, carry it all.

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Forum food critic Eric Daeuber says a sunny day in the Lakes country begs for a patio like that of Necces Italiano Restaurante in Park Rapids, Minn. Eric Daeuber / The Forum
Forum food critic Eric Daeuber says a sunny day in the Lakes country begs for a patio like that of Necces Italiano Restaurante in Park Rapids, Minn. Eric Daeuber / The Forum

Trucked between cinder block walls on the 300 block of Main Street is the patio dining spot belonging to Necces Italiano Restaurante made comfortable, and even fun, by lots of sunshine and brightly colored chairs. It’s a contrast to the much darker, more serious and traditional interior dimly lit and looking like an evening in Rome rather an afternoon in Tuscany. The food is the same, and by that I mean excellent, in either atmosphere, but a summer day begs for a patio, a long afternoon and truly fine interpretation of Italian dishes, some of which are features not always available on the menu but always worth considering.

Our visit included sausage manicotti and an extraordinary alfredo made with gorgonzola, blue cheese and beef tenderloin. Really good pasta dishes can be had for less than $15, and they scale up quickly. But as frightening as a $30 alfredo seems at first glance, it’s something special and can replace an equally expensive steak for a very different, but, again, equally extraordinary dinner. The meal is served with house-baked focaccia with oil and balsamic.

Forum food critic Eric Daeuber calls the $30 alfredo with gorgonzola, blue cheese and beef tenderloin "something special." Eric Daeuber / The Forum
Forum food critic Eric Daeuber calls the $30 alfredo with gorgonzola, blue cheese and beef tenderloin "something special." Eric Daeuber / The Forum

Desserts are also made in-house at Necces, but consider walking down the block to the Minnesota Soda Fountain for ice cream. The sign is original, the atmosphere close to original, and the ice cream treats positively sentimental if you want to go down the memory lane, but certainly excellent with any intent in mind. Decades ago, almost every small town had a soda fountain with a menu of oddly-named sundaes over which young loves were won and lost. You can do it again for around $6.

Food Critic Eric Daeuber recommends a stop at the Minnesota Soda Fountain in Park Rapids, Minn. Eric Daeuber / The Forum
Food Critic Eric Daeuber recommends a stop at the Minnesota Soda Fountain in Park Rapids, Minn. Eric Daeuber / The Forum

Summer slips away pretty quickly, but a lot of it can be captured and stored in lakes country Minnesota with a trip to a small town. Park Rapids is a town whose downtown keeps a supply of that feeling on hand. It’s worth the trip, especially those who frequent the lakes northwest of Detroit Lakes.

Remember Jack Kerouac? “I rather like the idea of having all my hours to myself: eating a Fudge Sundae, watching a movie, sleeping on my couch, singing in the bathroom, studying the woods, kidding around with a girl, playing cards lazily - all kinds of stuff that American brands 'shiftless,'” he said. Sounds like summer in Northwestern Minnesota.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Eric Daeuber's restaurant reviews

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.