I was born in Columbus, OH - a mere 2 hours from Cincinnati, yet I grew up blissfully unaware of Cincinnati Chili. So when when I went away to school at The University of Cincinnati, it didn't take long to figure out that this town was crazy for chili.
There are the big 2 chains; Skyline and Gold Star - but there are bunches of smaller players and countless Mom and Pops that sell the stuff too. I don't think you can travel anywhere in Cincy without being less than a mile from a chili parlor.
At this point in my life, I had got no problem with chili, it was a fine dish - but I just couldn't understand how a town that wasn't even anywhere near Texas could get so worked up about chili.
So one day, at the University Plaza near the Kroger, I walked into a Goldstar Chili. (It later became a Blockbuster Video store). The menu made no sense...3 way? 4 way? Huh? What;'s a cheese coney? Why would I eat that if you sell chili, right? So I ordered what I figured was something easy - a bowl of chili.
Right now anyone that has actually HAD Cincinnati Chili knows exactly what's wrong with this scenario. Because when I was handed a bowl of watery brown liquid that tasted of cinamon...well, my mind was blown. This was NOT chili; it was disgusting and the whole town was INSANE.
It took me about 2 years to try it again.
Let's get it out of the way right now - it is chili in name only. Approach it as you would a dish you've never heard of before and this gets a lot easier.
Cincinnati Style chili is a sauce. You'd no more eat a bowl of it than you would sit down to eat a jar of Ragu. We don't eat bowls of it; we eat it over noodles. In the case of Cincinnati chili, the noodles are thick spaghetti. It is spooned on top of the noodles, and topped with finely shredded cheddar cheese in 3 distinct layers; cheese, noodles, sauce. That's a 3 way.
A 3 way is the most popular configuration for eating Cincy chili, but you can upgrade to a 4 way or 5 way by the addition of beans (red kidney) and/or diced onion. (A 4 way has onion by default, but you can switch for beans if you like).
You don't twirl it around a fork like Italian spaghetti though - this dish you cut pieces off with a fork and scoop, like a casserole.
As I found out that day, while you can order it by itself in a bowl, hardly anyone actually does that. The texture is very runny. The meat is ground very fine. The savory spice mixture is heavy on cinnamon and has a Greek heritage.
It is also a hot dog sauce; thus the cheese coney.