Within just few thousand feet I had a taste of Germany, Britain, Greece, and Belgium. And the most surprising thing is that all of this ethnic food and drink was found in Cincinnati! Findlay Market has over a century of Cincinnati food history and has been an institution in the Over the Rhine neighborhood for over 164 years.
I tasted my way through the market with Cincinnati Food Tours. My guide, Barb, provided me all of the history of the market while taking me to her favorite stops introducing me to the people who were the heart of the market. Many, like Kate from the Dean’s Mediterranean Imports Market, comes from a lineage of market history.
Her father introduced Greek and Mediterranean food to Findlay Market 35 years ago. He missed his food and spices from Lebanon, so he opened up his store there to serve the immigrant market. Kate now runs the market and still has a focus on connection with immigrants through food by holding some innovative immigrant experience dinners.
Findlay Market was just the beginning of my Cincinnati food experience, and it was the foundation for my understanding of the surprising culinary scene in Cincy. I spent the rest of my time digging into some of the best food in Cincinnati; food that will make you want to travel there.
Sotto Pasta Room
As I walk down the dimly lit stairs, it feels as if I am going into a speakeasy. However, this underground restaurant is no secret, Sotto is routinely listed as one of the best restaurants in Cincinnati.
The atmosphere is warm and inviting even through you’ve technically walked into a cellar. Every table in the place is packed. Clearly, it’s a favorite among locals. It’s located under Boca restaurant, the more upscale option for Italian in Cincinnati. Chef/owner David Falk had figured out how to open and run some popular restaurants.
On the way to the bathroom, I was suddenly startled. There was a big glass window and behind that glass was a handsome man making pasta. I stopped and stared as if I were in a zoo. Granted, I had been enjoying a delicious cocktail, but it was only one…so why were my eyes deceiving me. This little glass pasta room wasn’t a figment of my imagination, it was real – and so was the handsome man inside.
This is how I met Andy Corpus …he’s a pasta guru in Cincinnati. His ‘office’ is a bright little room with a long table called the Primi Room. Here you’ll find him making him homemade pasta for all of Sotto’s pasta dishes. I was invited in his pasta ‘office’ to watch him make the perfect pasta.
Sotto’s Short Rib Cappalacci
“Making pasta is sort of like meditation,” he said as he swiftly rolled out the Cappalacci.
Cappalacci are like pasta dumplings. Andy was preparing these for Sotto’s famous Short Rib Cappalacci; this is one of the most popular menu items. The pasta is stuffed with short ribs, shallots, and thyme.
He makes 2,000 a day, no wonder why he has his own little pasta office; this is mass production!
“We started making 100% fresh pasta a few years ago. We are known for pasta so we put our money where our mouth is. Plus, fresh pasta cooks faster!” Andy explained.
I asked him if he had any strange stories from his little pasta office that lies inconspicuously on the way to the restroom. He laughed and told me about breaking up fights and having surprising conversations with people. But his favorite was when he was trying to tell a woman where the bathroom was, and instead she thought that he was flirting with her told him she was married!
After meeting Andy and watching him make fresh pasta I of course had to order the short rib stuffed cappellacci.
But we didn’t stop there, we also go the tagliatelle, and an exquisite egg yolk raviolo with truffle butter and ricotta cheese. Pure heaven. And somehow we defied reason and ordered desert because I couldn’t pass up a chance to try their famous ricotta doughnuts with three dipping sauces.
Cincinnati Chili 5 Ways
The first thing you have to know about Cincinnati chili is all chili restaurants are called ‘parlors’. The second thing you have to know is that it is served on top of a pile of spaghetti. And third, Cincinnati Chili was originally created by the Greek immigrants.
That’s right, Cincinnati Chili is unique.
I thought I had tried Cincinnati chili before…but once I got here and they mentioned ‘noodles’…I knew I hadn’t had the real thing…until now. ‘5 ways’ refers to the ingredients on your plate; onions, cheese, beans, noodles, and chili!
Camp Washington Chili
I had my first Cincinnati chili experience at Camp Washington Chili Parlor where I met Maria. Her family started Camp Washington Chili in 1940. Unlike many of the other popular chili parlors around Cincinnati they decided to forgo expanding; Camp Washington Chili only has one outlet. It still feels like a family, mom & pop establishment; and that feels good. As I talked to Maria, she looked up pointed to an older man at the counter, “That’s my dad, he’s in his 80’s and still eats here all the time.” Maria said proudly.
“Him?!” I said pointing to the balding man with a plate of chili cheesedogs in front of him.
“Yes, that’s Johnny Johnson, my dad who started it all,” she proudly said.
She has a reason to be proud of him, Camp Washington has a savory secret family recipe the won a James Beard Award in the category of Americas Original Classics in 2000.
“We didn’t really know what James Beard was,” Maria explained. “We got a phone call from NYC one day telling us we were nominated for the James Beard Award and it’s confidential.”
This really meant nothing to them at the time. Then they were notified of their win and were invited to NYC.
“When we got there and there was all of the press we realized that it was a big deal!”
I couldn’t leave without asking the obvious question, “Spaghetti in chili?” I questioned.
Maria smiled – I knew she had been asked this questions before. “No one really knows how the spaghetti got added,” Maria said with a smirk.
Soon I was surrounded by my bowl of overflowing chili on top of a mound of spaghetti and a generous topping of cheddar cheese. I sat and proudly ate my chili 5 ways enjoying every bite…even the spaghetti.
Unless you’re from Cincinnati, you’ve probably never heard of the German food goetta. I was a little dismayed as I pride myself on knowing Germany’s food. But I had never heard of goetta.
Goetta (pronounced GET-uh) is a mixture of ground pork, beef, steel cut oats, and spices cooked for hours . Just like it’s cousin – SPAM – it was created to stretch food supplies further. It was made popular by the German working class in Cincinnati.
The word goetta is actually made up to describe this unique food.
You can order goetta all over Cincinnati, but go 30 miles any direction from Cincinnati and you won’t find this regional food. However, the ultimate place to get it is at Eckerlin Meats in Findlay Market. The meat market was founded in 1855 by German immigrants and has been family run ever since. I spoke to Josh a part of the 6th generation butcher at Eckerlin Meats! He told me they make 1,500 to 2,000 lbs of goetta a week!
Traditionally, goetta was eaten for breakfast; it’s a great alternative to sausage. Eckerlin suggests you serve it on its own with some maple syrup, some grape jelly!
Biscuits and Gravy
I’ve heard of flights of wine, beer, whiskey, but I had never heard of flights of gravy until I came to Boomtown Biscuits and Whiskey Restaurant in the Pendleton neighborhood.
If you are surprised about biscuits and gravy being a Cincinnati food, then let me just remind you that Cincinnati was the dividing line between north and south during the Civil War. Thanks to that, it sort of has an identity crisis; it sometimes thinks it’s southern.
Boomtown Biscuits and Whiskey’s Chef Christian Gill wanted to elevate the essence of comfort food. He’s the recent 2019 winner of the Food Network’s “Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge” – so he knows how to cook comfort food! He focused on biscuits because it is something his grandmother used to make. In fact, he uses his grandmother’s sausage gravy recipe at the restaurant.
Your gravy flights (which you choose) come out on a little tasting tray accompanied with warm plate of biscuits. The food, as well as the accompanying whiskey cocktails, were delicious. And the tasting flight was plenty for a meal! In addition to the gravy goodness, they also had a tasting flight of jams, jellies, preserves and an assortment of compound butter.
Boomtown doesn’t just do biscuits and gravy, they also served up cheese grits, and pork belly. This is southern comfort food at its best!
Chris handed over a little piece of waffle for me to try and I put it in my mouth. I savored the soft, slightly sweet and caramelized waffle. I thought I could only get these perfect Liege style waffles in Belgium, but surprisingly I found my favorite waffle in the world in Cincinnati.
Most people don’t even know what a Liege style waffle is. I became a huge fan of them after traveling in Belgium. So much so that I wrote an article about the difference between Belgium and a Liege style waffles years ago based on my extensive research in Brussels!
Liege waffles are a batter-based waffle with pearl sugar cubes in the batter. These cubes in the batter caramelize when cooking. No toppings or sugar needed!
In 2007, Jean-François Flechet brought back a 120 lb cast iron waffle maker to Cincinnati from his native Belgium. He began baking the waffles he grew up with at the back of a produce store at Findlay Market. His waffles were popular; too popular. The produce guy kicked him out and he started his own store, Taste of Belgium.
He imports pearl sugar cubes and buckwheat flour from Liege to ensure its authenticity.
You can try this caramelized goodness in 7 locations throughout Cincinnati, but I suggest you head to Findlay Market and try it there.
You might think that Cincinnati is simply midwestern meat and potatoes food, but if you try these Cincinnati food staples, you’ll be enjoying Italian, Greek, German, Belgium, and Southern food favorites – all in the heart of America!
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I was a guest of Visit Cincy during my visit, however all opinions expressed here are my own.