If there’s a food item that defines the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region, it’s chili, and Dixie Chili and Deli in Newport is one of the historic locations that’s been serving up the dish in many different ways.
“Three men from Macedonia came to Cincinnati and they started Cincinnati Chili,” says Spiros Sarakatsannis, President of Dixie Chili. “First there was Empress Chili. My father came to this country when he was 16 and he worked for The Empress.”
Sarakatsannis’s father, Nick, went into business on his own in 1929, opting to open his chili restaurant across the river in Kentucky so that he wouldn’t be competing directly with his friends at Empress. Dixie Chili has operated in the same Newport location ever since.
The restaurant was open 24 hours, earning it fans in theater-goers and performers alike, who would stop in for a post-entertainment bite to eat. But the unique flavors were what earned the Greek-inspired chili its place in Northern Kentucky cuisine.
“What makes a chili special is the spices that go into it,” explains Sarakatsannis. “In Greece…many of the dishes have cinnamon, nutmeg, the sweet spices that are Mideastern. When Mr. Kiradjieff at Empress Chili added the spices to the chili, that’s when it became popular.”
In the early days, chili was served on hot dogs for the dish known as Coney Islands. But Cincinnati chili is known for being served over pasta. There’s a simple, but unconfirmed, legend explaining the origin of that pairing.
“The story that I got is that [Mr. Kiradjieff] took some chili home to somebody that was helping him at the house and that person put it on spaghetti,” says Sarakatsannis.
In addition to chili, Dixie serves salads with homemade dressings, vegetable soup made from Sarakatsannis’s mother’s recipe, and gyros. But it’s still the chili and the cheese Coneys that make up the bulk of the sales.
With a restaurant nearing 100 years of operation, Dixie Chili has customers who have been coming in for decades, and children that have grown up as part of the community.
“I have customers, more than one, who are over 100 years old,” says Sarakatsannis. “They’ve been coming here forever. That’s the fun part of it. I see babies turn to mature men and women. That’s really a lot of fun.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2019, which originally aired on May 23, 2015. Watch the full episode.