Everything about this recipe is upside-down for me. It defies almost every cooking instinct I live by, except the most important one—it’s delicious! Cincinnati Chili is unlike any other chili you’ve tried. It does not have spicy Mexican or even smoky Tex-Mex flavors, and that’s because its roots are Mediterranean. The cooking begins not with browning meat and onions, but with water and a small amount of tomato juice in the pan. The spices come next, and they are not the ones you would ordinarily associate with chili—including cinnamon, cloves, allspice and bay leaf. The raw meat is simmered directly in the liquid, so it stays very fine-textured (much like my recipe for hot dog chili). And the most noticeable difference is in the presentation—this “chili” is served on a bed of spaghetti and buried under shredded cheddar cheese, and any “way” you like it. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like chili at all.
This tasty dish was born when two brothers settled in Cincinnati, Ohio from their native Greece and opened a restaurant. Their recipe for a hot dog chili topping was seasoned with all the flavors of the Mediterranean, and it was such a hit with the locals, they eventually began serving it as a signature entrée, and “Cincinnati chili” earned its title as the most iconic food of the city.
My first taste of Cincinnati chili did not happen in southwestern Ohio, but in Greensboro, N.C., in a hidden little downtown gem called Cincy’s. It’s a woman-owned business with bragging rights of being the city’s oldest downtown eatery. This out-of-the-way place is only open three hours a day for lunch, and it happens to be a short walk from the radio station where I used to work. Despite the limited hours, Cincy’s was usually jumping, and though it offers a wide variety of sandwiches, wraps and burgers, the restaurant is best known for its namesake, Cincinnati-style chili.
I looked at several “authentic” online recipes for this dish, and especially at the reviews, to see what natives of Cincy—the experts, if you will—had to say in feedback, and that became the basis for my version. This final composition is based on my taste buds’ memory of those downtown lunches from yesteryear.
What I have plated up here is every bit as good as I remember, though I’m sure I’ll have to visit Cincy’s again soon, just to be sure!
2 3/4 cups water
1 cup tomato sauce or strained puree (no chunks!)
1 lb. lean ground meat* (see ingredient notes)
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
¼ cup red wine vinegar*
1 Tbsp. chili powder*
1 ½ tsp. cocoa powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika
1 tsp. smoked paprika*
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp. regular table salt)
Several twists freshly ground black pepper
2 dried bay leaves
½ lb. spaghetti (I used whole wheat)
1 can light red kidney beans, rinsed and warmed
½ cup finely minced onion
4 oz. finely shredded cheddar (I used medium sharpness)
Oyster crackers, if desired
Any combination of lean (90%) ground beef or turkey works well in this recipe, but for a vegetarian version you could substitute with a combination of cooked lentils and cracked bulgur wheat, as they do at the restaurant where I first enjoyed this dish. Follow the package recommendations for cooking time of those products and add them to the pot at the appropriate time to avoid overcooking them.
Apple cider vinegar would probably work in this recipe as well, but given that the recipe has Mediterranean roots, I used red wine vinegar, which is typical in Greek cuisine.
Chili powder is one of those spice ingredients that is different from one brand to the next. Peek at the label to see whether your chili powder contains salt or any other ingredients you may want to adjust in the overall recipe.
My smoked paprika is a sweet (not hot) variety. The slight smokiness was nice in this dish, but if you don’t have this, you could simply double the amount of regular sweet paprika.
- Combine all the dry seasonings (except bay leaves) in a bowl and set aside.
- Combine the water and tomato sauce in a large saucepot, over medium-low heat. Stir in the dry seasonings, garlic and red wine.
- Crumble the raw ground meat into the pot and use a utensil or potato masher to break it up as much as possible into a fine texture. Add the bay leaves. Bring the mixture to a low boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced, and sauce is thick but not dry. Give it at least an hour. Add a bit more tomato sauce and water, as needed, if the sauce has cooked down too much. It should be more meaty than “saucy.”
- Cook spaghetti noodles to al dente stage, then drain and immediately toss with a bit of oil or butter to keep the noodles from sticking.
- Plate spaghetti and top with meat sauce, plus any of the other toppings you like. Here’s how they break it down, Cincy style:
“2-way” = spaghetti with chili only
“3-way” = with chili and cheese
“4-way” = with chili, cheese and beans OR chili, cheese and onions
“5-way” = with chili, cheese, beans AND onions (the best)!