Cincinnati chili is a regional chili dish that is unique to the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. Unlike traditional chili con carne, Cincinnati chili is served as a sauce poured over spaghetti or hot dogs, then topped with cheese, onions, and beans. This distinct preparation has left many outside of Cincinnati wondering – why is the chili served over spaghetti instead of by itself or with more traditional sides?
The History Behind Cincinnati Chili
Cincinnati chili originated in the 1920s when Macedonian immigrant Tom (Athanas) Kiradjieff created a recipe inspired by traditional Mediterranean spiced meats. Kiradjieff first served his chili at his hot dog stand, unsure how customers would receive it. However, the chili became an instant hit. In 1922, Kiradjieff opened the Empress Chili restaurant, the first establishment dedicated solely to serving Cincinnati chili.
From the beginning, the Empress Chili served their homemade chili sauce ladled over spaghetti. Some sources claim this was an economical option, allowing the restaurant to turn a little bit of chili into a hearty meal. Other accounts say Kiradjieff was inspired by his native Macedonian cuisine to pour the chili over spaghetti. Regardless, the combination allowed customers to enjoy the unique spiced meat sauce Kiradjieff had crafted.
As Cincinnati chili grew in popularity through the 1920s and 1930s, virtually all chili parlors in Cincinnati served it over spaghetti. By the 1950s, it had become an established local tradition. Even national chains adopted the custom when entering the Cincinnati market. The spaghetti component had become an essential part of the Cincinnati chili identity.
Why Spaghetti Became Essential to Cincinnati Chili
Although economic and cultural factors contributed to the origins of serving Cincinnati chili over spaghetti, there are also some fundamental reasons this combination became so embedded in the local cuisine:
Cincinnati chili has a thin, sauce-like consistency. It is heavily spiced with cinnamon, cloves, allspice and chocolate. This gives it a unique flavor but a thinner texture than traditional bowl or pot chili. The spaghetti provides substance, allowing each bite to have the pleasing contrast of tender noodles and flavorful sauce.
Spaghetti’s flat shape and strands are ideal for absorbing and delivering the spices and flavor of Cincinnati chili. The noodles allow you to fully experience each nuance in the chili’s taste. Other sides like rice or potatoes would not as effectively capture the complexity of the sauce.
Cincinnati chili often contains warm spices like cinnamon that create a burning sensation. The al dente noodles have a cooling effect, allowing you to enjoy the chili’s full flavor without being overwhelmed by spice.
Standards of Identity
When Cincinnati chili was growing in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, standards of identity did not exist. This allowed Kiradjieff the freedom to completely create his own style of chili. However, as food regulations increased, Cincinnati chili no longer fit the legal definitions. Serving it over spaghetti distinguished it from traditional chili con carne. Calling it “chili spaghetti” also emphasized it was its own unique dish.
More than Just a Side Dish
While spaghetti may have started as an affordable side dish for Cincinnati chili, it quickly became an indispensable component. The noodles complement the thin chili, absorbing maximum flavor and tempering the spicy heat. Generations of Cincinnati natives have enjoyed the classic dish, cementing spaghetti as a tradition instead of just a side order.
Cincinnati chili aficionados insist that the dish must be served over spaghetti to fully experience the flavors. The juxtaposition of tender noodles and richly spiced chili create an iconic and beloved local specialty.
For outsiders, the concept of chili over spaghetti may seem odd. But for true Cincinnati natives, this traditional pairing is essential. As local restaurateur Goldie Kaufman explained in a 1965 New York Times interview, “It has to be on spaghetti. It’s not chili without spaghetti.”
The Cincinnati Chili Spaghetti Experience
Part of what makes enjoying Cincinnati chili over spaghetti so special is the whole experience of how the dish is served and eaten. A bowl of Cincinnati chili spaghetti is an interactive experience of textures, temperatures, and flavors coming together in perfect harmony.
A proper bowl of Cincinnati chili spaghetti consists of layers. First the hot cooked spaghetti, followed by chili ladled over top. Then a layer of shredded cheddar cheese melts slightly from the heat. Onions and beans can be added on top to taste. Like a parfait, the layers meld together while still retaining individual integrity.
Each diner can customize their chili spaghetti layers to their personal tastes. You control how much cheese or onions go on top. Beans can be added or omitted. Hot sauce is always on the table for those who like an extra chili kick. The ability to craft your perfect bite is part of the charm.
Cincinnati chili spaghetti is meant to be enjoyed with a fork only – no spoons needed. You twirl forkfuls of spaghetti to lift the chili and capture the cheese. The final bite delivers the delicious combined flavors. Using just a fork maximizes the ability to get the perfect noodle to sauce ratio in each bite.
A steaming hot bowl of newly ladled chili over fresh spaghetti allows you to experience temperature contrasts. The chili and pasta start off hot and steamy while the cheese and onions are cool and fresh. In the end the temperatures equalize, but the initial contrasts accentuate the flavors.
From al dente noodles to smooth chili sauce to melted cheese and crunchy onions, Cincinnati chili spaghetti encompasses an enjoyable variety of textures. The spaghetti’s firmness stands up to the liquid chili while the cheese and onions lend contrast. The dish combines softness, crunchiness, and creaminess in each tasty bite.
To fully appreciate why Cincinnati chili is served over spaghetti, you have to understand what makes the dish special to the locals. It’s a tradition that evokes a sense of regional pride and identity.
Historic chili parlors like Skyline and Gold Star are Cincinnati landmarks. Visiting these joints for a bowl of chili spaghetti is a rite of passage. The classic dish connects you to generations of Cincinnati natives.
Bars and restaurants featuring Cincinnati chili draw the community together. Neighbors reconnect over shared bowls of chili spaghetti paired with local beers. It’s the quintessential Cincinnati meal and gathering place.
Claim to Fame
For a city its size, Cincinnati has many claims to fame. But Cincinnati chili may be its most unique point of pride. Other cities have their own styles of chili, but none are quite like the local favorite – chili over spaghetti.
When major local events like Cincinnati Reds opening day or the Flying Pig Marathon take place, you can bet Cincinnati chili will be served. At times like these the community bonds over its signature dish.
Cincinnati Transplants Spread the Tradition
Part of what keeps the tradition of Cincinnati chili over spaghetti going strong is Cincinnati natives spreading the dish beyond Ohio. Former residents in far-flung cities crave a taste of home. Transplants open restaurants bringing Cincinnati flavors to their new communities. A bowl of chili spaghetti transports them back to nostalgic memories.
For example, Santa Barbara, California is home to Jean’s Cincinnati Chili, started by a Cincinnati family in 1978. Pat’s Chili Dogs in the Las Vegas area was founded by a Cincinnati native and serves chili cheese coneys and chili spaghetti. Expat bars like The Cincinnati Chili Company in Portland allow Ohio transplants in Oregon to enjoy Midwest favorites.
As Cincinnatians relocate, they bring along their chili and continue the tradition. They passionately explain the exact right way to eat it over spaghetti, evangelizing newcomers to their favorite local delicacy.
Cincinnati Chili Without Spaghetti?
At this point you may be wondering – is Cincinnati chili ever served without spaghetti? While spaghetti may be standard, you can order your chili over a few other sides:
Before spaghetti, Tom Kiradjieff first served his chili sauce over hot dogs at his cart. Chili cheese coneys remain a popular menu item. A hot dog bun and wiener replace the noodles as the chili foundation.
Some prefer to ladle their Cincinnati chili over a baked potato or fries instead of spaghetti. The potatoes provide a neutral, starchy base for the chili flavors.
Burger joints offer the option to top your burger with Cincinnati chili for a meaty take on the dish. The hearty burger holds up well to the strong chili spices.
For a creative breakfast, omelettes with Cincinnati chili add eggs to the mix. The fluffy eggs balance out the chili’s thickness.
Cincinnati chili nachos substitute tortilla chips for pasta, making for an appetizer-friendly option.
While Cincinnati chili can be enjoyed in various ways, serving it over spaghetti remains the time-honored tradition. The unique pairing of European-inspired spiced meat sauce poured over noodles creates an iconic local dish.
How to Recreate Authentic Cincinnati Chili Spaghetti
Want to try making authentic Cincinnati chili spaghetti at home? Use this traditional recipe:
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 1/2 pounds ground beef
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
- 1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cocoa powder
- 1/4 cup grated unsweetened baking chocolate
- 1 1/2 cups beef broth
- Shredded cheddar cheese
- Chopped onions
- Kidney beans
- Oyster crackers
- Hot sauce
- Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
- Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add garlic and cook 1 minute more.
- Add ground beef and cook until no longer pink, breaking up chunks as you stir.
- Add vinegar, tomato sauce, water, chili powder, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, cayenne, cocoa powder and chocolate. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low.
- Simmer chili uncovered for 60 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add beef broth and simmer 15 minutes more to thicken chili.
- To serve, place hot cooked spaghetti in the bottom of a bowl. Ladle hot chili over spaghetti.
- Top with shredded cheese, onions, beans, crackers, and hot sauce as desired.
Now you can enjoy a taste of Cincinnati right at home! The spicy, sweet chili ladled over tender noodles creates the perfect bite every time.
Cincinnati Chili Spaghetti Etiquette
If you ever find yourself at one of Cincinnati’s famous chili parlors, be sure to observe proper local etiquette:
- Know the lingo. Don’t ask for chili – it’s called “chili spaghetti.”
- Start with a 3-Way (spaghetti, chili, cheese). Once initiated, try a 4-Way with onions or 5-Way with beans.
- Use your fork to cut bites and aim for equal parts chili, cheese and noodles.
- Add hot sauce, oyster crackers and extra cheese as desired.
- Enjoy with a local beer like Hudepohl for the complete experience.
- Tip generously – those ladies behind the counter work hard!
With its Greek-inspired spiced meat sauce over pasta, Cincinnati chili spaghetti is a dish you have to experience to truly understand. The queen city’s signature food is a unique tradition beloved by locals and a fascinatingenigma to outsiders. So next time you’re in southwest Ohio, be sure to grab a stool at the counter and savor a steamy bowl of Cincinnati history!