Award winning writer Keith Pandolfi returns to the Queen City

Ask him, and food writer Keith Pandolfi will tell you a story about potato skins.

But Pandolfi’s story isn’t just about potato skins; it’s a story about his childhood, about the innocence of youth, about simple flavors and full bellies. It’s a story about how it feels to be home and how it felt to be away.

Pandolfi could also tell you a story about goetta and eggs. But, it wouldn’t really be a story about goetta and eggs; it would be a story about economics and diversity, about grit and sincerity, and about honoring the family business. It would be one of his many stories about how food makes and flavors a community. It would be a story about Cincinnati.

The writer’s life

Keith Pandolfi is an award-winning food journalist who began his career in Cincinnati writing for an alt-news weekly paper. After more than twenty years building his writing career in places like New Orleans and New York City, he recently migrated back to Cincinnati where he says it’s a great place to eat, to drink, and to call home.

Pandolfi has always considered Cincinnati his hometown. He was born in Massachusetts, but he moved to Anderson Township when he was 9. After graduating from Ohio University in 1993, he came back in Cincinnati, landing in Clifton’s gaslight district.

Thinking he might pursue a career in teaching, he enrolled in a graduate program in English at Xavier University. But, what Pandolfi really wanted to do was write. He took an internship at Everybody’s News, an alternative weekly newspaper, and found that the scene was the perfect place to learn the craft.

“It was a good proving ground for journalism,” he explains. There was a lot of creative freedom and a really supportive editorial staff. The gig wasn’t perfect, though, since the publication only paid something like $25–50 dollars a feature story.

Everybody’s News was a big deal when I was growing up so I didn’t care [about the money],” Pandolfi continues. “I was just excited to see my name, my byline, in print.”

For a few years, Pandolfi supplemented his writing with other sources of income — serving in restaurants, tutoring, working for a family business. But he eventually dropped out of graduate school because he couldn’t afford it. Then, in 1998 he and his long-term girlfriend broke up and he found himself at a personal and professional crossroads.

A close family friend suggested he move down to New Orleans. This friend had worked for the Associated Press and said he would connect Pandolfi with some freelance writing opportunities.

For those first two years in New Orleans, he wrote for all the local publications — business weeklies, alt-weeklies, and monthly magazines. But he left New Orleans when he was offered a full-time editorial job at Dayton’s alt-weekly paper. After a year and half working in Dayton (and living in Cincinnati), he moved back to New Orleans to take a job as a business reporter. He lived there for two more years.

Finding stability and vision in New York City

While in New Orleans, Pandolfi began writing for a trade magazine headquartered in New York. In 2003, an opportunity opened up for a full-time job at their New York City office and he felt like he couldn’t turn it down.

“The salary they offered me — which was really not much at all — seemed huge given what I was making in New Orleans,” he remembers.

Getting a writing job in New York City, he says, was like being accepted into Harvard. He knew it would be a great place to further establish his career. So he took the leap and moved.

Things changed quickly. That trade publication was sold and Pandolfi ended up writing for a theater magazine, “which I knew nothing about,” he says.

Pandolfi enrolled in a class called Writing for Men’s Magazines, thinking he’d land a job somewhere like GQ or Esquire, both of which published excellent writing and paid well. But the teacher of the class, who worked for the magazine This Old House, offered him a job working with him instead.

He took the job in 2005 and it held steady through the 2008 economic recession. He remembers other publications laying people off at every juncture, but his job was secure. He counted his blessings and stayed put. Then, in 2012, a colleague at This Old House left for a job at the gourmet food and travel magazine Saveur and, soon after, he went, too.

When it became about food

By the time he’d made it to New York City, Pandolfi had secured his status as a professional writer, but he still wasn’t a “food writer.” His career developed over time; his love for cooking happened first.

After Hurricane Katrina, Pandolfi was mourning the devastation of a city that he’d spent four years writing about and loved deeply. To cope, he became obsessed with Cajun food, cooking gumbo for his This Old House friends during New Orleans Saints games. It was his way of processing his losses and sharing the story of the food-rich city of New Orleans while living so far away.

But it didn’t stop with gumbo. Comfort foods, in general, became his new muse. He and his work friends would cook dinner for each other and share recipes for chili, stew, and other slow-cooked, homey foods. At the same time, all around them, gourmet food culture was becoming mainstream with Brooklyn now a hotspot for all the best new restaurants.

“When I moved to New York, you went out to see music,” he remembers. “Now it’s all about restaurants and rock star chefs.”

A budding chef himself, Pandolfi was already a huge fan of Saveur when his friend went to work for the magazine. Now, reading it became a ritual.

“I would go to a bar after work every day and, when a new issue would come out, I would read it cover to cover,” he says. “I started to think that I’d really like to write about food.”

He applied to the French Culinary Institute thinking he should get some experience in the industry. But, as he was about to enroll, that former colleague told him to skip the classes and jump right in to the work. She offered him some freelance assignments.

In 2013, he was hired on full-time as the senior editor of Saveur. In 2015, he transitioned into a job as features editor with Serious Eats. In the last few years, he has done primarily freelance work and has been working on his food memoir.

Rediscovering the taste of home

The piece that really kicked off his food writing was an essay about his family’s food traditions.

Pandolfi’s father’s family had a restaurant and catering company in Springfield, Massachusetts. His dad was a fantastic cook, he says — an Italian mastermind behind the kitchen doors with a scotch in hand. He remembers him doing much of the cooking at home when he was young. His food was “intense” and everyone loved it.

At the time of his writing assignment, there was one particular dish Pandolfi remembered as his father’s signature. He wanted to write about it, but he couldn’t remember many details. It was “something made with Galliano,” an Italian liqueur. So, in preparation for his essay, he tried to recreate the recipe from scratch.

The moment he’d perfected it, the experience was visceral. He remembers thinking: “This smells exactly like home. It smells exactly like my home when my dad was alive.”

These themes of home, comfort, and tradition became recurrent in his writing. Once his food journalism career really took off, he wrote frequently and affectionately about comfort foods and about his hometown of Cincinnati, helping draw attention to the oft-overlooked Midwest and its homey, comfortable cuisine.

One of his first feature stories for Saveur was about Tucker’s Restaurant in Cincinnati. One of his most well-known pieces for Serious Eats was a personal essay about potato skins that won him a James Beard award for food journalism in 2017. (A James Beard Award is a good indicator that a food writer has truly “arrived” in their career.)

Leaving NYC for Cincinnati

Pandolfi loved living in New York City but, after sixteen years, marriage, and the birth of a daughter, it was time to move on. The cost of living alone was prohibitive. Leaving when they did was a preemptive move for the day when New York wouldn’t seem so practical. And he says he never intended to stay forever anyway.

“I never felt at home there,” he admits. “I was never ‘a New Yorker.’”

With a stable freelance career and his wife’s job with a podcast company owned by Scripps (which is conveniently headquartered in downtown Cincinnati), the timing seemed right to move closer to home. So his family moved back to Cincinnati in summer of 2019.

Pandolfi is now carving out a life and career in a city that’s only partially the city he remembers. It’s familiar enough to feel like home, but has evolved significantly in the almost twenty years he was away.

In the past decade especially, Cincinnati has shed some of its underdog identity and built a new reputation in the restaurant and tourism industries. It’s not a stretch to say this is certainly due, in part, to advocates like Pandolfi who have promoted it elsewhere.

“It’s not like I’m the best mouthpiece for the city,” he says. “I was just in the right place at the right time. I had the means and the platform to tell the stories.”

As he’s getting to know his hometown (again), Pandolfi is still surprised by the depth of its charm. He loves how “fiercely regional” the city feels and how the local chefs cater to their local customer base rather than competing for national attention. He says the struggle now is for entrepreneurs to honor the city’s past while embracing its new identity.

Part of Pandolfi’s dream for this next phase of his career is to help expand representation of Cincinnati’s local and regional culinary talent and culture. And he’d like to help foster the local writing community to continue to represent Cincinnati well. He intends to keep telling its story.

“When you love something,” he explains, “you want to share it.”

Keith Pandolfi has always worn his love for Cincinnati as a “badge of honor.” To outsiders, goetta and chili on spaghetti might feel backwards or unrefined. To him, it has always just felt like home.

This is the eleventh story in an ongoing series about Cincinnati’s “boomerang” residents — people who grew up here, left, and then came back for various personal, professional, and sentimental reasons. If you or someone you know qualifies and would like to be featured in Soapbox, email [email protected].

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.