Editor's note: For our Cincinnati City Flavor Guide we serious eaters have turned to Cincinnati Magazine food editor Donna Covrett. And why not? Donna says she spent her childhood "journaling her family’s meals" before "spending 20 years as a pastry chef." She has spent the last ten years chronicling the Cincinnati food scene, first as the dining editor for Cincinnati CityBeat, then at Cincinnati Magazine since 2005. According to Donna, Cincinnati has long had a vibrant food scene that extends well beyond chili five-ways and the seriously delicious Graeter's ice cream. Take it away, Donna. —EL
Spankin' good five-ways. Yes, we’re talking about food—Serious eats, Cincinnati style. When you pull up a stool at any counter of the dozens of independently owned and operated chili parlors in the Greater Cincinnati region (more per capita than…anywhere) and order a five-way, the only immoderate indulgence you’ll be consenting to is a plate of spaghetti layered with chili, onions, beans, and cheese. Created in 1922 by local Greek immigrants, the thin meat sauce perfumed with cinnamon and allspice is closer to its pastitsio roots than "chili" as conceived in the American southwest, and the merits of individual brands and parlors are endlessly debated by Cincinnati residents and visitors alike. Skyline Chili is sweeter and (supposedly) contains chocolate; Gold Star Chili spicier with a rich reddish hue. Cayenne pepper lingers on the palate from Camp Washington Chili, and Empress Chili—the original—is thin and dark with a prominent allspice smack.
Skyline Chili: multiple locations; search at skylinechili.com. Gold Star Chili: multiple locations; search at goldstarchili.com. Camp Washington Chili: 3005 Colerain Avenue, Cincinnati OH 45225 (map); 513-541-0061. Empress Chili: multiple locations; Google map
But if you can’t rock the five-way, consider our other regional fave, goetta. Similar to scrapple (c’mon, any serious foodie knows what that is—or if not, refer to Wikipedia), goetta is made from ground pork shoulder, pinhead oats, onion, herbs, and spices. Like its culinary cousin, it’s formed into loaves, sliced, and fried (in bacon drippings if you’re going whole hog). Local diners such as the wildly popular Tucker’s Restaurant (family owned and operated for 63 years) serve it for breakfast graced with a fried egg. You’ll find it on double-decker sandwiches, in burgers, dogs, and even fudge. Like our local chili, we have entire festivals around the stuff. Unconventional, sure…but that’s just how we roll.
Tucker’s Restaurant: 1637 Vine Street, Cincinnati OH 45202 (map); 513-721-7123.
Don’t be so quick to roll your eyes at our rube-ish ways. Fine dining? We’ve got that too. I’d stand both Nicola's and Boca up against any contemporary Italian restaurant in New York City. At Nicola’s, the enormously talented chef Cristian Pietoso makes luxurious, silky, hand-made pastas and administers to meats with the care attended to a lover. At Boca, chefs David Falk and Jono Fries tuck quail eggs and ricotta into ethereal pillows of ravioli, and serve a braised pork shank on polenta that’s nothing short of orgasmilicious man food.
Chef David Cook has been walking the culinary high wire and stalking the gaps for 10 years at his restaurant, Daveed's at 934. And praise the lard for chef Sean Daly of Hugo—the man has a way with pig. Cured, smoked, or cooked, it lends a distinct flavor to his low-country menu steeped in both soul and contemporary swank. Orchid's at Palm Court is a benchmark of fine dining and fine service. Housed in the gilded splendor and lavish French art deco finery of the Hilton Netherland, chef Todd Kelly weaves intricately arranged melodies of prime cuts, colorful produce, fine grains, and delicate sauces into a savory whirlygig of dishes.
Nicola's: 1420 Sycamore Street, Cincinnati OH 45202 (map); 513-721-6200. Boca: 3200 Madison Road, Cincinnati OH 45209 (map); 513-542-2022. Daveed's at 934: 934 Hatch Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202 (map; 513-721-2665. Hugo: 3235 Madison Road, Cincinnati, OH 45209 (map); 513-321-4846. Orchid's at Palm Court: 35 West Fifth Street, Cincinnati OH 45202 (map); 513-421-9100.
Locavore? We're in the Midwest after all—everyone has two degrees of agrarian separation. At Nectar, chef Julie Francis creates thoughtful, innately feminine dishes that seem to spring from the loins of Mother Earth, and packs her neighborhood restaurant for the twice-monthly dinner club featuring a single ingredient done five ways. With the local grower / artisan present, it's educational, personal, and memorable dining.
Nectar: 1000 Delta Avenue, Cincinnati OH 45208 (map); 513-929-0525.
No serious eating in Cincinnati is realized without ice cream. Woven into our dining landscape, we are home to award winning handcrafted ice creams such as Graeter's (three words: black raspberry chip) and Aglamesis Brothers, and a dozen seasonal creamy whip stands (my summer is not complete without a pineapple milkshake and hot mett standing at the window of Mr. Gene's Dog House). Hungry? Excellent.
Graeter's: multiple locations; view at graeters.com. Aglamesis Brothers: 3046 Madison Road, Cincinnati, OH 45209 (map); 513-531-5196; 9899 Montgomery Road, Cincinnati, OH 45242 (map); 513-791-7082. Mr. Gene's Dog House: 3703 Beekman Street, Cincinnati, OH 45223 (map); 513-541-7636.