Cincinnati’s Must-Eat Foods Go Way Beyond Chili

Courtesy of Cincy Region

The Cincinnati area cuisine is best known for Cincinnati chili, an offbeat dish that's more like a take on pasta than a chili — but if that’s all you know of the city, you’re not seeing the full picture. Cincy combines the food traditions of Italian and German immigrants to the greater metro area with Northern Kentucky’s Southern fare and bourbon, plus the Midwest’s fondness for rich flavors and full stomachs. In short, it’s an overlooked culinary gem. To help you get acquainted with what the region has to offer, we’ve rounded up some of the must-try spots in the Cincinnati area:

Courtesy of Cincy Region

Goetta

Cincinnati has seen several waves of German immigrants move to the city and add new features to the local culinary scene. In the 19th century, they brought with them goetta, a ground-meat sausage packed with steel-cut oats. Originally a method of conserving expensive meat, goetta has garnered a fandom in Cincy, appearing on breakfast platters, egg sandwiches, and burgers across the region. Shops like Eckerlin Meats serve over 1,500 pounds of homemade goetta each week, both sliced and on sandwiches. There’s even a “Glier’s Goettafest” each year at Newport on the Levee, celebrating everyone’s favorite sausage with entertainment, games, and goetta creations like a breakfast sandwich served on two donuts.

Kentucky bourbon

Locals know that the greater Cincinnati area is more than just Ohio, with northern Kentucky right across the river. (In fact, if you travel to Cincinnati by plane, the airport is actually in Kentucky.) Northern Kentucky is home to the “B-Line”, a collection of craft distilleries, bars, and restaurants serving up the local gold — bourbon. Kentucky has a storied tradition of bourbon distilling, with stops on the B-Line like Old Pogue Distillery dating back 150 years, but there are newcomers to the scene as well, like New Riff Distilling. No matter where you decide to check in, Newport, Covington, Burlington, and the surrounding areas will have whiskey lovers covered. (There are also bourbon-centric bars in Cincinnati itself, like The Littlefield.) Also important to note: Cincy’s brewing scene is bustling, with dozens of breweries and taprooms, plus barbecue restaurants to accompany them.

Courtesy of Cincy Region

All the best pizza joints have a similar history: an Italian-American immigrant family takes a historic recipe, figures out how to get non-Italians to give it a shot, and the food does the rest. In this case, that family is Buddy LaRosa’s, the location is Cincinnati’s West Side, and the year is 1954. LaRosa was inspired by the annual summer festival at the San Antonio Catholic church, where he whipped up pizzas using his Aunt Dena’s recipe. Nowadays, LaRosa’s is the biggest pizza chain in the Cincy area, with Italian-American classics like calzones and hoagies also on the menu, and serves as the unofficial hangout for post-games of all kinds.

Okay, so it’s not one item or location, but Taste of Cincinnati should definitely be on your calendar. It’s the nation’s longest-running culinary arts festival, taking place over Memorial Day weekend in the heart of Downtown Cincinnati. That means three days of food trucks, fine dining options, and everything in between. Awards are given out each year for best healthy option, best appetizer, best desserts, and more, so chefs are always at the top of their game. Those aforementioned brewers and distillers are always crowd favorites, and guests can take home growlers, craft wines, and bottles of Kentucky bourbon. The very best part is that it’s free, so anyone can just show up and enjoy the ambience.

Courtesy of Cincy Region

Graeter’s is another Cincinnati family that has become an institution within the local food scene. For over 150 years, the company has been using the same”French Pot” method of making ice cream in small batches, in which cream and chocolate are hand-poured into a spinning mixer — and the results speak for themselves. A calendar of seasonal flavors keeps things interesting, and if you’re not in Cincy, don’t fret: they ship nationwide, so you can create your own pack of pints to enjoy.

Cincinnati chili

No article about Cincy’s food scene would be complete without mentioning Cincinnati Chili, a chili that’s more like a pasta sauce than the dish most Americans think of. It’s served over spaghetti, usually with shredded cheese and optionally onions or beans (referred to as a “four-way” or “five-way,” depending on the number of toppings). Despite the rumors, it’s famous for a reason, as long as you know what to expect. (Think Midwestern pasta sauce, rather than meat chili.) Skyline Chili is the best-known practitioner of the art form, and also serves “cheese coneys” (A.K.A. hot dogs smothered in cheese and chili), but there's also Empress, the originator of the dish and creator of the “way” ordering system, and Camp Washington, a chili mainstay for over 75 years. Decide for yourself who's serving up the best version of this classic dish. Once you’ve sampled the real thing, you’ll be ready to convince friends back home to try it for themselves.