Weekend Wanderlust: An Ohio culinary road trip in three stops

Kevin J. Elliott
Nick Drakos with a 16 cut pizza from DiCarlos in Hilliard

We have to save our stages, our dive bars, our museums and our mom and pop pizza shops. Without them, what do we really have? 

As a traveler, support these places wherever you go. Get a membership to the Ohio Historical Society, a favorite art institution or a local restoration and research project. But most of all, support the independent eateries in your neighborhood, and especially the pizzerias.

Every year I teach a unit on Columbus Cultural Exports and ask my students what our city contributes to the rest of the world. I often hope they dig up histories on James Thurber and Roland Kirk, but they usually stumble upon Bow Wow and 21 Pilots. More often than not, though, when they research for what Columbus is known, Wendy’s, White Castle and Donato’s top the list. 

For posterity, I would defend all of our major chains. If anything, Columbus’ culinary exports adhere to a legacy of consistency and quality. A Wendy’s cheeseburger tastes the same anywhere in the world. A White Castle is open somewhere right now. And Donato’s, well, I truly feel Donato’s is on the cusp of another windfall if only because the talk of Columbus-style pizza is at a peak. 

During the pandemic, “Pizza Thursday” has become a ritual in our household. We shelter in our bubble and reach out to local pizzerias who tout the titular Columbus-style which consists of a flaky, thin crust, sweeter-than-normal sauce, party cuts, edge to edge, cupped and charred Ezzo pepperoni, and homemade sausage. Using the recently releasedColumbus Pizza: A Slice of History, by food writer Jim Ellison, and the Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus Facebook group (now boasting 34,000+ members) as our guide, we’ve eaten our way across the city, one pie at a time. I’m in no capacity to critique or make proclamations as to what pizzeria in town makes the definitive Columbus-style pizza, or even who makes the best, though we have been scientific in our exploration. It’s something we can debate in the future. For now, support them all, and don’t take for granted how much of a pizza mecca we have just within the outerbelt.

But let’s say you need to get out of the house and out of that belt to try an exotic regional dish born in some other part of our state? Where do you go? What foods are distinctively Ohioan? That’s a question I’ve long searched to answer. 

Here are three that I feel fit the bill, all available a day trip away. Of course, you’ll be eating in your car, so be prepared with car trays, insulated pizza bags and a napkin stash. You could also  easily pair these trips with a hike through a state park or nature preserve— a nice, healthy and safe counter to any gluttonous indulgence. 

Ohio Valley Pizza

Best option:The Original DiCarlo’s (318 Adams St., Steubenville)

Where to hike it off:Walk into West Virginia over the Ohio River via theMarket St. Bridge and tour picturesque downtown Steubenville until you spotDean Martin’s mural, or find a trail inSalt Fork State Park on your way home. 

Perhaps the most divisive style of pizza on the aforementioned Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus group is the relevance of the Ohio Valley-style pie. The origin of this varietal came in 1945 when Primo DiCarlo took the bread from his father’s Italian bakery in Steubenville and invented the “poor man’s cheesecake.” DiCarlo’s pizza falls somewhere between Columbus and Chicago in terms of its medium crust. It has the crunch of Columbus, but not the depth of a deep dish. Pre-bake, all DiCarlo would add was their traditional tomato sauce. The controversy comes after it’s out of the oven. Toppings like pepperoni or freshly grated provolone are added after cooking and are cold. DiCarlo’s extra cheese usually comes with an extra bag of the white mana. 

Primo and his brother Galdo took the hearty, square-cut delicacy across to booming Wheeling, West Virginia, and an empire was born. Survey the region and you’ll find many of the mom and pop stores adopted the style. We do have a DiCarlo’s in Hilliard, and soon a location on Fifth Ave., but to get the true experience, the original location is a true landmark, stuck in time. 

Cincinnati Chili

Best option:Price Hill Chilli (4920 Glenway Ave., Cincinnati)

Where to hike it off:TourSpring Grove Cemetery (the largest in Ohio), climb theMain St. Steps (the longest set of public stairs in the nation) or take a few minutes to head to North Bend and the grave ofWilliam Henry Harrison (America’s shortest-term president) and then hike his adjacent memorial nature trail. 

Equally polarizing is Cincinnati chili. The typical “American” would not refer to the Cincinnati “stew” as a chili, per se. But thanks to Skyline, and to a lesser extent, Gold Star, everyone is familiar with Its accoutrements and consistency. 

Price Hill Chili

Cincinnati chili arrived in the area with Greek immigrants in 1922.Tom Kiradjieff concocted the spaghetti topping using beef, tomatoes and Mediterranean spices (bay, cinnamon, clove and, in my recipe, semi-sweet chocolate). Much of the “soupy” story comes from its beginnings as a sauce for pasta, and soon it encompassed the defining element in a coney. The “way” system came with adding beans onions, and the important mountain of shredded, almost neon, cheddar cheese. 

Kiradjieff is credited as the originator, opening Empress in the booming downtown (of which only one franchise in Kentucky remains). But quickly other Greek entrepreneurs created their own recipes and parlors, the second beingDixie, which still stands across the river in Newport, Kentucky.

With Skyline now open nationwide, as well as available in most grocery stores, it’s likely you’ve tried it at least once. Your closest alternative is aGold Star in Wilmington (and I’d contend Gold Star is superior to Skyline), an hour drive from Columbus. That said, there are reportedly 250 chili parlors in the Cincinnati area. Each one is specific to their neighborhood and there’s an overwhelming pride in who has the best in the city. I can wholly recommendArnold’s (the oldest bar in downtown), which serves a divine vegetarian version,Blue Ash(the suburban mainstay) andCamp Washington (the most authentic). But through serious research I’ve determined thatPrice Hill Chili, in operation for almost 60 years as a family business, is the perfect Cincinnati chili experience, as determined by the strict metrics of  nostalgia, flavor and hospitality. 

Serbian Fried Chicken

Best option: Hopocan Gardens (4396 Hopocan Ave., Norton)

Where to hike it off:You are right in the center of several great hiking adventures in Cuyahoga National Park (tryWorden’s or Whipple’s Ledges).

Ohio is certainly not the first place that comes to mind when you think of fried chicken. But the Serbian families who migrated to Barberton, a once-small community outside of Akron, have a no-frills approach to the dish that has become an underrated regional institution. 

The first Serbian chicken house isBelgrade Gardens, established in 1933. The restaurant’s minimalist technique to fried chicken which includes no seasoning, no brining and with the chicken cooked exclusively in lard is what earned it the accolades and distinction. While it may sound plain and simple, that’s what makes it juicy and addictive. The usual Serbian fried chicken meal is also distinctively served with crispy fries (fried in the same animal fat), a cabbage slaw and“hot sauce” (a mix of stewed tomatoes, onions and rice). Adding hot sauce is encouraged but not required.

There are several chicken houses serving Serbian fried chicken from which to choose, each with its own distinctive twist. I’ve only visited the original, Belgrade Gardens, whose interior resembles your great-grandmother’s house, but in Barberton alone you can visitWhite House Chicken, the Village Inn and the internet’s consensus choice as the most consistent and best,Hopocan Gardens.