Cincinnati chili is really just Greek bolognese

Graphic: Libby McGuire
Acquired TastesAcquired TastesIn Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.

Sitting at a booth last month at Santorini’s, a Greek restaurant on the west side of Cincinnati, I was about to order a dish I’d read about in our local city magazine—the sweet, doughy gyro pizza topped with lamb, red onions, feta and tzatziki sauce—when my eyes wandered across the menu to find something even more intriguing: “Greek-style chili.”

At first, it threw me for a loop. After all, I’ve never noticed a large Greek contingent at any chili cook-offs I can think of. But it only took a second for it to all makes sense. The chili was offered in the familiar Cincinnati parlance of a two-way, and a three-way; a four-way, and a five-way. A two-way is chili on spaghetti; a three-way adds cheese; a four-way, beans or onions; a five-way, onions and beans. The Santorini family, who emigrated from Greece and opened Santorini in the 1960s, had just claimed it as its own, which it has every right to do since, basically, Cincinnati chili is Greek-American meat sauce.

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Despite the insults it attracts, here’s what Cincinnati chili actually is: ground beef, onions, pureed tomatoes, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, chili powder, cumin, and oregano. Yes, some homemade versions include chocolate, but according to Dann Woellert, author of The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, not one chili parlor in Cincinnati uses it in its recipe.

What makes Cincinnati chili Greek is the common spice profile. As our local food critic, Polly Campbell of The Cincinnati Enquirer once wrote, “Look at any Greek cookbook, and you’ll see recipes for moussaka, sweet-sour eggplant, meat sauce and stifadoes, or stews that are flavored with cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.” This is also true of the Middle Eastern meatball dish kibbeh, which tasted so much like Cincinnati chili the first time I ordered it that I started craving a side of shredded cheddar cheese to accompany it.

Despite its familiar flavor profile, in my experience, there’s no other regional cuisine as misunderstood—and as trashed—as Cincinnati chili. I’ve never looked at the reader comments on a story about, say, New England clam chowder, New Orleans gumbo, Nashville hot chicken, or even Rochester, New York’s famous “garbage plate” and seen people hurl such insults at them.

At this point, I’ve had too many arguments about Cincinnati chili to count. And occasionally I’ve written about them. A few years back, when a chef in Charleston, South Carolina, called Cincinnati chili a “dumpster fire,” I wrote a defense for the local news channel here. The most recent offense was a Twitter user who, after I posted how I couldn’t get my daughter to eat anything these days—not even Cincinnati chili—responded by calling it “trash.” To his credit, he eventually backed down, and I think my response was part of the reason why.

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I told him what many people don’t realize is the “garbage” they speak of is actually immigrant food—Greek and Macedonian immigrant food to be specific. The city’s first chili parlor was Empress Chili, which was opened just next to the Empress Burlesque Theater by John Kiradjieff and Ilias Kiradjief, immigrants from northern Greece who came to America in the 1920s. Just as Lombardi’s is the first pizza parlor in New York City, Empress was the first chili parlor in Cincinnati. And, though its original location is long gone, we honor it with an equal amount of reverence.

Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group (Getty Images)
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While we don’t know how or why the Kiradjieff brothers decided to ladle chili over spaghetti and top it with cheese, the most plausible explanation comes from Woellert. According to him, the dish was originally called chili spaghetti, and “was served like a Bolognese—chili and spaghetti mixed together.” Woellert posits that it was an Empress customer that first asked for grated cheddar. “Originally it was served on the side,” he writes. “But when more customers asked for cheese, the Kiradjieffs decided to serve it on top as a standard item.”

Since then, almost every chili parlor in Cincinnati has been a direct or indirect descendent or Empress. The city’s most popular chain, Skyline—opened in 1949 by Nick Lambrindes, formerly of Empress Chili—is the most well known, though the region is home to more than 300 Cincinnati-style chili parlors. And if you think the Greek-American families who invented this Cincinnati staple are indifferent to its critics, you’d be mistaken.

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“Absolutely, I’m offended,” says Maria Papakirk. She runs the James Beard Award-winning Camp Washington Chili along with her father, Ioannis D. Iannou (later Americanized to Johnny Johnson), who emigrated from an area near Kastoria, Greece, in the early 1950s. “This is my family’s bread and butter. When I hear someone in New York slamming our chili—yes, it really upsets me… I think if people understood its Greek roots, they would think twice.”

Papakirk also wonders why a combination of pasta, meat sauce, and cheese is so difficult for those living outside of Cincinnati to comprehend. “People think it’s just a big glob of Texas-style chili on pasta and covered with cheese,” she says. “What they don’t know—what they don’t get—is that it’s more like a Bolognese sauce.”

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Papakirk admits many of the city’s old parlors that were started by Greeks are now owned by Cincinnatians of other nationalities. The current CEO of Skyline is an Irishman from Tulsa, Oklahoma, while the city’s other big chili chain, Gold Star, is owned by the Daoud family from Jordan.

Still, no matter who owns or operates the city’s chili parlors, we can thank Greek immigrants for their existence. And this isn’t just some novelty food we Cincinnatians push on tourists or reluctantly embrace as a cliché. Yes, we eat the stuff. We eat it all the time. We take our kids to chili parlors; executives do lunch at the Skyline chili location downtown. We make chili at home; perhaps no holiday gathering is complete without someone bringing over some Cincinnati chili dip (cream cheese covered with chili, onions, and shredded cheddar cheese).

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And if you’re wondering if Empress is still around, the answer, mercifully, is yes. And it’s thanks to the camaraderie and support among Cincinnati’s Greek-American community. “We bought Empress eight years ago,” says Papakirk. “The owner lived right next door to my parents and asked if they wanted to buy it.” In the end, Papakirk’s husband, Jim Papakirk, decided the family couldn’t say no. “He was wise enough to say we should save it,” says Papakirk. “Because without Empress, Cincinnati chili’s Greek history would basically be erased.”

This food is Cincinnati’s birthright, and for many Greek-American families, it’s also their livelihood. The next time someone derides our chili as a dumpster fire or garbage, remind them it’s just Greek bolognese. On second thought, you know what? Just tell them it’s chili. It’s chili, and it’s the best damn chili melting-pot America ever created. 

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