Enquirer Food Writer Keith Pandolfi Knew He’d Be Back

“You miss Cincinnati more than you think you will when you leave.”

NAME: Keith Pandolfi
AGE: 51
WHO IS HE: Food and dining writer for The Cincinnati Enquirer

Photograph courtesy Keith Pandolfi

At what age did you leave Cincinnati, and when did you return?

I left initially in 1998 for New Orleans when I was 28, and I came back for a year to take a job in Dayton in 2000. I went back to New Orleans in 2001, then moved to New York in 2003, and returned here in 2019.

Why did you return?

I always planned on returning, I just didn’t think it would take so long. As much as I loved New Orleans and New York, they always seemed temporary to me. By the time I moved back here, I was a freelance writer, so I could work anywhere, and my wife Amy was working for Scripps, which is headquartered here. So that gave us the option of moving back. It was kind of perfect timing because we’d just had a daughter.

You miss Cincinnati more than you think you will when you leave. I returned often enough that I was able to maintain friendships. I knew there was plenty of material for food writing in this region, including Kentucky and Tennessee. So I thought it would be a good chance to write about foods from the Midwest and the South.

While you were still in New York, you were pretty active as a champion for Cincinnati, shining a light on our region’s food. What was it like observing Cincinnati from NYC?

I loved having a national platform to talk about Cincinnati and its food scene. I had to fight for it a little bit more than other cities that were getting more of the national spotlight, like Nashville and even Louisville. Cincinnati has always been hard to pinpoint from a culinary perspective, because it’s part Southern, part Midwestern, and Appalachian as well, so it doesn’t fit into the traditional cuisine categories.

I had this fear while I was writing about Cincinnati that I was almost doing parachute journalism sometimes, because as familiar as I was with the city it was changing so rapidly I started wondering if I had the authority to really cover it for a national audience. So I was always very careful to get it right and to keep coming back and talking to chefs.

Were you excited to return, or hesitant? A little of both?

I wanted to get on with my life, and I always knew I’d come back here. I was frustrated when I was in New York because I was just like, OK, when is this actually going to happen? I felt instantly more comfortable and more at ease as soon as I got back here. And even though I’ve been gone for 20 years, it still felt like home, despite all the changes.

I was worried that, like many people who leave New York, I’d end up having regrets. They miss the public transportation, the energy, the variety of not just food but theater and music. But I found that almost overwhelming, and I knew Cincinnati had it in smaller quantities. I think I would have lost my mind if I’d been in New York during COVID. Being here and at the time renting a four-bedroom house with a backyard made it a lot easier to survive this past year, and then we eventually bought a house. I do miss New York pizza and the corner slice shop.

How has Cincinnati changed since you left?

I could easily pretend that it’s exactly the same, since most of the places I loved are still here and most of the friends I love are still here. In other ways, of course, there’s Over-the-Rhine, which as a food writer I can’t ignore. That’s a major change. I love the chefs and talent in OTR, the vibrancy it has now. But I also want to focus on places like Tucker’s that have been there through it all. When you go into Tucker’s, you see those families that have been living in Over-the-Rhine for 50 years or more. I feel like we need to always keep that in mind.

How is it the same as before?

Cincinnati holds on to its traditions, and that includes its restaurants. Its neighborhoods are still unique, whether it’s Pleasant Ridge or Hyde Park or Cheviot. After being gone for 20 years, most days it just feels exactly the same. My mission during my first six months at The Enquirer was just to remind people that there are a lot of restaurants that are still there despite everything that’s been happening, places like the Blind Lemon or Highland Coffee House or Arnold’s that have been there forever. I don’t want those places to ever be overlooked because they’re what give the city its personality.

What’s your favorite new discovery since returning?

The west side. I grew up on the east side and never explored the west side. That’s where you’re going to find all the old bakeries and butcher shops and these great restaurants like Sebastian’s, Maury’s Tiny Cove, and Trotta’s Pizza, places I didn’t know anything about when I left. It’s like a whole new city over there to me, even though it’s probably the most Cincinnati part of Cincinnati.

What keeps you here now?

Well, I got a job at the daily newspaper. My friendships drew me back, many of them rooted in high school. And the familiarity of the landscape, the architecture, the city itself brought me back. It’s always just felt like home. I’ve left home several times, and I really don’t want to do it again. I love our east Hyde Park neighborhood where we bought our first house. I’ve never experienced home ownership before. I know it has its problems, but I love it. I love having a garage.

So being a food writer for a daily paper during a pandemic, what’s that like? And how does writing about food now compare to writing about food before the pandemic?

Polly Campbell was more of a traditional food writer at The Enquirer. She reviewed restaurants, and everyone looked forward to her reviews. A lot of chefs appreciated her input or her constructive criticism, and I’ve decided—at least for the time being—not to review restaurants. I just don’t think it’s fair to review them right now because they’re suffering so much.

It’s been really amazing watching how these restaurants have survived and figured out ways to just keep going. You hear stories about restaurant workers being mistreated by customers who refuse to wear masks and follow the protocols, but you also hear a lot of great stories like the crosstown tip-off and the generosity customers have been showing.

I can’t wait for things to go back to normal, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to cover restaurants without factoring in COVID. I personally have decided not to eat inside of restaurants yet. I mean, I’ve done it a couple times, but for the most part I’m not dining in. So when I’m doing a story on, like, my favorite salads this week, that just basically means I’m getting in my car, drive around, and come home with a bunch of Styrofoam or hopefully recyclable containers. People might think I go out to eat every night, but I’m usually driving around, picking things up, and eating them in my car in the parking lot somewhere.

Was there a moment when you realized Now I’m a food writer?

I always wanted to write some sort of semiautobiographical novel about my family in Cincinnati and all this stuff, but I wasn’t a good fiction writer. So then I went to Saveur, the food magazine that also does travel and has a lot of personal essays. Being a food writer wasn’t really a prerequisite for being hired there. You had to have a strong interest in it, which I did, but as long as you were an OK writer and a good editor they’d take a chance on you. You were there to learn about food, and Saveur gave me so much knowledge and let me travel all over the country and internationally that when I left I felt like a food writer. I realized that food was also a great vehicle to tell other stories in almost an Anthony Bourdain–type approach, where the story was ostensibly about food but really about something else. Saveur allowed me to tell my own stories through food and to edit a lot of really great writers who are much better than I will ever be.

You wrote for EveryBody’s News and worked as an editor for Dayton’s old alt-weekly Impact Weekly, wrote for papers in New Orleans, worked at magazines in New York City and at the Serious Eats website. Are there any constants that have held throughout your career, and where do you think food writing is headed?

I’m really happy to be at The Enquirer because it has a huge web presence but is still print journalism for the most part. The hardest thing I witnessed while in New York was this long, slow death of food magazines. Saveur just announced that it’s going completely digital. Gourmet folded while I was there. Bon Appétit is going through this huge reckoning. Most of the people who are going into food writing are coming into it through digital platforms instead of print. So I was getting kind of depressed by the time I left New York. There were no print magazines I really wanted to work for anymore, and they stopped having copy editors and fact checkers.

I think it’s strange that I’m now working for the daily paper I grew up reading. That feels very full circle to me, because when I was in my early 20s all I wanted was to do was work for The Enquirer or a Cincinnati print magazine. I’m really, really lucky.

Has becoming a parent changed how you think about food and writing about food?

I write about meals I had when I was a kid with my family and the restaurants I used to go to. My father is dead, but my mother reads those stories and is fascinated because she didn’t realize what an impact certain moments were having on me at the time. You never know what kids are going to remember and what those really sacred moments are going to be for them. I’m now watching my daughter, not knowing whether that lunch at Dewey’s Pizza is something she’ll remember when she’s 25 or whether the picnic we had in Ault Park is going to stay with her forever. But I can’t create those moments for her. I’ll try to make a meal for her that’s something she’ll always remember, like gumbo—and she doesn’t like gumbo. Then we sit down together for dinner and she just wants to watch TV instead. There’s no controlling the memory-making machine.

My father’s family owned a restaurant. His entire family grew up there and his brother worked there. So food was this very deep part of his life. I’m not connected to that family back in Massachusetts, and that restaurant has been closed for 60 years. I wish I could have that sort of big, extended family and my daughter got to have those family meals you read about all the time. But we’re just a family of three, and that’s her situation.

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