In the eyes of many in Cincinnati’s food community, Keith Pandolfi wears the cape of a hero and carries a mighty pen. The city still is glowing from the national food writer’s high praise in recent articles for Saveur and This Old House.
In the former, he called Cincinnati the "next big food city." Pandolfi visits the city this weekend, reprising his role as an expert panelist at the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic.
Formerly a senior editor at Saveur, Pandolfi now freelances for respected media such as The Wall Street Journal, Eater and Epicurious. One of his feature stories made Da Capo's prestigious anthology of Best Food Writing 2015.
Even this esteemed writer was at a loss for words when he tried to describe the transformation in Over-the-Rhine.
“I was sitting at the bar at Salazar’s, looking out at the surrounding gorgeous buildings, eating this amazing food, thinking, ‘What the hell just happened here?’ ” Pandolfi said.
“I don’t know what to call it because I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen a neighborhood transform as quickly as Over-the-Rhine.”
Even though he’s based in Brooklyn, New York, Pandolfi is uniquely qualified to talk about Cincinnati’s food scene: He grew up here. Born in Connecticut, he was 9 years old when his family moved to Anderson Township. After graduating from Anderson High School, he got an English degree from Ohio University and then started graduate school at Xavier University to pursue his dream of becoming an English professor.
“But then I realized it wasn’t going to happen, so I just started writing for a living,” he said.
Pandolfi wrote for the now-defunct Cincinnati publication Everybody’s News before taking a post in New Orleans as a reporter for New Orleans City Business. In 2003, he moved to New York, where he has remained since.
But whenever he’s in town, Pandolfi’s nostalgia nudges him to drop in on the comfort food joints of his youth. He still frequents eateries such as Skyline and The Echo in Hyde Park. Tucker’s in Over-the-Rhine was one of his favorite places until a kitchen fire in late July forced the long-standing restaurant to close its doors.
He fondly remembers tea excursions he and his mother took to the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza in what he calls his “Little Lord Fauntleroy youth.” Then there’s Ambar. “Growing up, I thought it was the best Indian place,” he said.
Pandolfi visits Cincinnati about once a year. “I even go to the Anderson Township Pub and have a burger because that’s where I used to go when I was a kid,” he said.
'Cincinnati Has Always Been A Dining Town'
Even as the chefs and champions of this city’s dining scene strive to put Cincinnati on the culinary map, Pandolfi said, “Cincinnati has always been a dining town. It didn’t become one.”
He recalls how growing up in the ‘80s, restaurants such as the Maisonette, the Celestial and the Precinct elevated Cincinnati to a different league. His palate led him to disappointment when he first moved to New Orleans.
“I remember complaining to the people there the food in Cincinnati was so much better,” he said.
Ironically, the city’s pedigree might have shorted itself of media attention. Pandolfi observes that media buzz tends to swirl around underdog cities that suddenly establish themselves as a culinary force, not cities which already come from good culinary stock.
Crisis And Comeback
When the five Mobil-starred Maisonette closed in 2005, and Pigall’s followed suit a few years later, Pandolfi was alarmed. He thought it would throw Cincinnati into a major identity crisis. He also figured the city’s German heritage would lead its culinary comeback.
He didn’t see the Over-the-Rhine phenomenon coming. “All of a sudden, Over-the-Rhine came in, and bam, here we are,” he said.
“You have this collection of insanely talented chefs in this concentrated area,” Pandolfi noted. In his view, transplant chefs such as Chicago’s Dan Wright and New York’s Jose Salazar have stepped up the city’s culinary swagger. Just as importantly, Cincinnati is able to hang on to its native talent. “Jackson Rouse, he’s so talented, and they’ve been able to retain him,” he said.
With the renewed interest in regional cuisine across the nation, Pandolfi hopes Cincinnati will continue to embrace and elevate the cuisines of its culinary heritage: German, African-American and Appalachian.
“As cosmopolitan as Cincinnati is, it has a little bit of the mountain south in it,” he said, referring to the many Appalachian descendants in the area.
Pandolfi is excited about the future of Cincinnati dining, citing the trifecta of gorgeous architecture, amazing food and a thriving downtown area.
“It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the country,” he said. “It’s a hard city to leave, and anybody who does, always thinks about coming back.”