Recently I've been getting the impression that the simple sandwich has been progressively more under the media spotlight. Just a few days ago I read this interesting article about how the French are embracing the good old sarnie (sandwich for the non British) to come to terms with today's shorter lunch breaks. The next day, to remain in topic, I received an Italian gastronomic magazine with a panino on the front page. Inside a couple of interesting articles on what panini are today in Italy, how (again) the changing lifestyle has helped making them more popular than ever and the best addresses around the peninsula. It would seem that even in Italy people are noticing how popular panini have become abroad and finally taking pride in that. Stimulated by these articles I decided to write a post on Italian panini. After all, loving bread so much I couldn't ignore what comes between those delicious slices.
I hope you're not one of those people who really believe that John Montague, Fourth Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich in 1762. To think that a noble man, who probably had a good amount of people cooking and serving him, would be the inventor of one of the simplest foods in the world is ridiculous. In the best case, his cook might be the one who had the idea. But do you really think that all those farmers, builders, etc. working in the open all day and living on a diet often based on bread would have not thought of that before? If you don't believe me, well, a very highly reputed source such as Larousse Gastronomique claims exactly the same. What Montague achieved is, on the other hand, not to be undervalued. He made the sandwich hip and acceptable even for high society. Without him probably all the recent sandwich, panini and wrap fashions might have never taken place.
Looking back at Italy it is evident how the concept of bread as central part to the eating experience was always very strong. For example, a word as companatico is today sometimes used to mean food (bread excluded). The correct definition is actually that which goes with bread from the Latin origin cum panis. This word probably originated in religious circles during the Renaissance to describe the food monks and nuns would sometimes prepare to vary their simple but boring bread-soup diet. It's not known if they ate their companatico between two slices, but you never know. Those minks always knew how to eat.
The first Italian recipe that somewhat resembles a panino is that for panunto (greased bread) described, at the end of the XVI century, by Domenico Ramoli, who even got nicknamed as the dish. To find something similar in print one has to wait till the end of the XIX century as the sandwich, made fashionable by John Montague, returns in style into Italian cookbooks. In between panini very likely existed but were too much of a poor food to come into a book.
During the XX century panini slowly evolved from being a worker's food, and second choice to more trendy sandwiches, to achieving a recognised place in the Italian food scene. In the '80s Milan became the centre of a, luckily I must say, short lived teen fashion named after the panini: the so-called paninari. Dressed in a ridiculous combo of Monclair coats, jeans, El Charro cowboy belts, Burlington socks and Timberland loafers (and always perfectly UV-light browned) they would gather in front of the first Italian fast-food joints (the most famous called Burghy). Nothing to do with panini actually, if not in an indirect way. The expanding fast food fashion pushed some Milanese establishments to go against the current and offer real Italian gourmet panini. Twenty years later some of these bars, or as they're sometimes called, paninoteche, still have a leading position in the world of fashionable panini. I'll say a bit more about them later.
Italian versus International Panino
Till now I've talked about panini and sandwiches in an interchangeable way, so it's probably necessary to outline what makes an Italian panino. Panino in Italian means both roll and stuffed bread. As you would expect then, the most common bread used for a panino is a roll. There are many types commonly used but a few are favoured: rosette, an airy roll with almost no crumb slashed with a pattern resembling a flower, francesini, a sort of baguette style roll and ciabatta. Focacce and other breads, very often used abroad, are not as common in Italy. Something close to the classic sandwich exists too: tramezzini. Their name comes from the French word entremets. These are usually made with sliced packaged white loaves but are not really considered panini.
The panino filling, for the majority of the Italians, should contain cured meats: other ingredients are enjoyed along these meats but bread and meat is enough to make a panino. Cheeses are quite common, as is salad. Sauces of all sorts, from flavoured butters to mayo, are common but not compulsory. They're also coming under scrutiny because of their high calorie content. In the last years, pushed by dietary concerns, vegetables, especially grilled ones, have been gaining popularity.
I've noticed that outside Italy panini are inevitably grilled in a panini press. Some good looking and delicious examples can be found, for example, in The Food Section's panino log. In Italy opinions are split. Some love the crunchy bread holding warm meats and melted cheeses. Others argue that this is just a trick to hide off flavours. If bread, meats and other ingredients are fresh, they claim, the grilling is not only unnecessary but also counter-productive, erasing the fresh fragrance of the ingredients. For me it's a matter of mood and of which ingredients are used. Especially when cheeses like scamorza come in play, grilling is for me the only option for a real panino experience.
For anyone growing up in Italy panini are often connected with memories of school breaks, seaside snacks in summer and maybe healthy mountain walks. The panini eaten would mostly be of the simplest kinds with a single filling, not grilled and often prepared just before eating them. As mentioned before, cured meats are the filling of choice: salame, prosciutto and mortadella are for me still a sort of holy trinity of panini. Other meats as sliced pancetta, Sudtiroler speck and even sliced lard make great stuffing too. Cheeses are a common filling too. Usually the local availability will determine which particular cheese is used. Summer favourites are panini with tomato and mozzarella or tomato and tuna. There's also a sort of IMO "redneck" or better rustic panini category: pane e frittata, i.e. flat italian omelette, pane e salsiccia and pane e cotoletta, bread with breaded cutlet.
All these panini make up the core of the Italian homes repertoire. With just a few little touches they can be turned into real gourmet treats. Famous panini places actually do offer quite a few of these. The main difference with the home versions is that these places will use selected, top of the range ingredients, only the freshest bread, often prepared especially for the purpose, and maybe add a touch of their own or two. Real panini connoisseurs will also discuss at lengths and even fight over it about which breads are best with which stuffing and even fight over it. The main thing which all agree upon is that bread and stuffing should be balanced: they should highlight each others taste instead of fighting for who's flavour is stronger. If you feel like playing this "game" buy one simple stuffing, salame for example, and try it with four or five different rolls, ciabatta, a hard roll, wholewheat, some flavoured bread and focaccia maybe. You'll soon notice how the balance changes from bread to bread.
Travelling on a bread roll through Italy
What you've just read about is a sort of general overview of Italian panini. But as it often the case is, there's a whole range of regional specialities. You could actually organise an Italian holiday just devoted to the tasting of all the different local panini and you'd be travelling from Northern Italy downward to Sicily eating panini the whole way throug.
Milan is probably the best place to start, it is after all considered THE panini city, because
of the reasons mentioned before. Some of the landmark establishments in panini history can be found here. I'll only mention two of the many places. Quadronno (in Via Quadronno 34) is famed for its many creations and for the amount of stuffing each panino gets, a fat 150 grams. Some highlights are their wild boar prosciutto panino and the palma d'oro, with bresaola, bottarga curls, game pate and sauce aurore, which has won them the sandwich world title. Another top place is Panino giusto (four shops around town, the original in Corso Garibaldi 125) considered by some to have the best panini in Milan. The panini style here is quite international, after all Milan is a world centre for fashion and design, often using creative stuffing combinations. On the downside, the prices are quite high, even considering the quality offered.
In the rest of Italy a few places stand out for their traditional panini. It's often food for the tough or at least for the offal lovers. In Firenze the quintessential street food is the lampredotto a panino stuffed with one of the cows stomachs (the abomasum), boiled in a flavoured broth and chopped. If you don't like tripe maybe you should steer clear. Moving southwards to Rome you'll probably be more attracted by the many sorts of pizza baked in large rectangular pans. But don't miss two great panini made with pizza bianca: with prosciutto or, in summer, with peeled and split figs. Actually why not combine the two for one of my favourites. Mmmh... prosciutto and figs... delicious! An even longer southward trip brings you to Palermo in Sicily. Palermo is IMO the street-food capital of Italy. Along the many delicious things one can eat there are two local panini classics: pane ca meuza and pane e panelle. Pane ca meusa is a a bread stuffed with spleen pieces pan-fried in pork drippings. I'm not a big offal lover myself but I like this quite a bit. Although it is served in a roll, often the vastedda, it is sold as "focaccia". Calling it a panino will immediately betray you as a foreigner (i.e. not from Sicily). It can be bought schietta, simple, or maritata, "married" to some ricotta and/or grated caciocavallo. For me a maritata please. Pane e panelle is instead a pure vegetarian pleasure: bread stuffed with fried slices of chickpea flour polenta, cooked, spread thin to dry in little round forms. Quite rich in itself, but some make it even richer by adding cazzilli, tiny potato croquettes.
All this talking about panini makes me want to go into the kitchen and create something. Because, after all, a panino is whatever you want it to be. Whenever you make one there's a part of you in it and sometimes a panino will turn out autobiographical. But most of all, it's fun. And now sorry, I'm off to play with my food!
This post was inspired by the last issue of the Italian magazine Gambero Rosso which was also the source for some of the info I used.