For 513 Day, we asked non-local chefs: What food turned you into a Cincinnatian?
Spoiler alert: You'll soon be craving a 3-way
Grace S. Yek | WCPO contributor
7:00 AM, May 8, 2017
10:27 AM, May 8, 2017
CINCINNATI -- Whether it's with a new romantic partner or a new city, some of us tend fall in love stomach-first.
In honor of 513 Day (unofficially celebrated on May 13), I asked nine local chefs -- and a mixologist -- who live in our area code but are not Cincinnati natives: "What food turned you into a Cincinnatian?"
Some of their answers might surprise you.
Luers, culinary director and operating partner at The Phoenix and The National Exemplar, was born and raised in Batesville, Indiana. He moved to Cincinnati after a culinary stint in New York; however, he said he bonded with the Queen City over Skyline Chili long before then.
"I can remember the exact day that Skyline Chili opened in Batesville," he said. "I was 12 years old … and for the grand opening they were offering all-you-can-eat."
He and his friends "gorged" themselves that day, he said, and returned to the chili joint like "clockwork." These days, he bonds with his son over Skyline Chili, paving a new father-son tradition.
"I have him hooked as well," Luers said.
Originally from Los Angeles, Manabat is the former mixologist at Metropole and now a sales manager for Watershed Distillery. In 2008, she made a stop in Cincinnati en route to Boston, and her stop turned out to be permanent.
"I fell in love with Cincinnati and am so inspired by the people," she said.
She also fell in love with goetta, the pork-and-oats sausage wonder that's a Cincinnati favorite.
"It's one of those things you taste and think, 'Where has this been all my life?' " she said.
Todd Kelly is executive chef and food and beverage director at Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza. Originally from Long Island, New York, he's lived in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, California and even the island of Mauritius.
He's now rooted in Cincinnati, he said, thanks, in part, to Skyline Chili. (He did, however, acknowledge taking a few years to warm up to this delicacy.)
"Cincinnati (Skyline) chili is like nothing else anywhere I have ever experienced," he said.
Salazar's answer to this soul-searching question was short and sweet: goetta.
Born in Medellin, Colombia, and raised in New York, Salazar is now the chef and owner of Mita's and Salazar Restaurant and Bar. He moved to Cincinnati in 2008 to become executive chef at the Palace restaurant in the Cincinnatian Hotel.
"(Goetta) is unique and delicious," he said. "And you know most chefs love their pork."
Born and raised in Florence, Italy, Pietoso is the chef and owner of Via Vite in downtown Cincinnati and Forno Osteria & Bar in Hyde Park. He moved to Cincinnati in 2004 to join his father, who was running Over-the-Rhine restaurant Nicola's.
What food turned him into an official Cincinnatian?
"It's got to be goetta," Pietoso said, crediting Bob Lillis, the proprietor of Eckerlin Meats at Findlay Market, for introducing him to it.
Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Gulisano worked at the now-closed Bella Luna prior to opening his own restaurants, Alfio's Buon Cibo in Hyde Park and Che in Over-the-Rhine.
Gulisano said the magic moment happened when he ate at longstanding Cincinnati deli Izzy's: "I had the Izzy Rubenator."
The double-decker sandwich packed with corned beef, sauerkraut, dressing and cheese on rye bread made Gulisano feel like a homegrown Cincinnatian. "It was delicious," he said.
Born and raised in Lorain, just outside Cleveland, Ohio, Caraballo served in the Air Force prior to joining the restaurant industry. He started at Lachey's as a line cook in 2014 and is now the executive chef.
"If I were to say the one food that turned me into a Cincinnatian, it would have to be my first bite of goetta," he said.
Caraballo, who has Puerto Rican roots, explained: "It reminded me of morcillas (a Puerto Rican variant of blood sausage), and that helped to root me in Cincinnati."
A Louisville native, Williams is the chef and owner of the award-winning Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar in Covington. His culinary brilliance and dedication to local sourcing have earned him fans from both sides of the river.
For Willams, it's more about the ethos of the area that made him feel like one of its own.
"There's not really a specific food that made me fall in love with this city. It's more about the amount of amazing food grown in and around the city," he said. "Some of the best produce I've found in the country is grown within 20 miles of Downtown."
Originally from Texas, Garcia moved to Northern Kentucky and started his Tex-Mex food truck, Texas Joe, in 2012.
The food that made him feel at home in the Queen City was, surprisingly, a loaded baked potato pizza. Garcia said he was working in the food service area at Duke Energy Convention Center when his executive chef, Henry Warman, showed him how to make the pizza.
"He used to be the executive chef at Ciao Baby and they used to make it at the restaurant," Garcia said. Ciao Baby Cucina was an Italian Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Cincinnati in the mid-to-late '90s.
I asked one more chef -- just because -- and received an answer that might very well reflect the changing standards of what is considered Cincinnati's homegrown food.
Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Gill is currently the marketing chef for Rhinegeist. He will open his own spot, Boomtown Biscuit Bar, in Pendleton this summer.
"The food I ate that turned me into a Cincinnatian was Dan Wright's mussels charmoula at Senate," he said. "I've never had mussels that solid before, and I have yet to have better on my travels now."
Grace S. Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.