In Italy, just like in all Europe and North America, a ‘panino’ (Italian for sandwich) is a popular lunch option, and in some cases also a quick dinner alternative. Italian bars often press-grill their sandwiches to enhance the flavors, turn the bread more fragrant and crunchy, and melt any cheese. However, at home, or when bakery-fresh bread is available, the Italians enjoy non-grilled sandwiches just the same.Check out the latest episode of Thoughts on the Table, the podcast on food and food culture. Also available on iTunes and Google Play Music.
This article describes both styles of Italian sandwich: the world-famous grilled sandwich (known as Panini) and the less known un-grilled version.
Going back to the word “panini”, in Italian it refers to all sandwiches – and it’s plural. «One sandwich» translates as ‘un panino’ (from ‘pane’, bread). «Two sandwiches» translates as ‘due panini’ and shouldn’t be re-pluralized as Paninis – it causes native Italians to cringe!
|A “Panini” press|
Grilled panini are prepared in a “Panini” press (called ‘piastra’, literally: plate). In Italy, they generally feature established combinations of fillings, though these combinations don’t have universally assigned names. Common types of bread used are: ciabatta, francesino (a small French-style roll), and in some cases focaccia. Classic fillings combinations are:
- mozzarella, tomato (plus arugula and/or prosciutto cotto or crudo);
- prosciutto cotto or crudo, fontina, salsa rosa (“pink sauce”, made of mayonnaise, ketchup and whiskey);
- prosciutto cotto or crudo, brie (plus lettuce and/or tomato);
- prosciutto cotto, brie, olive tapenade;
- prosciutto crudo or bresaola, goat cheese or stracchino (plus lettuce and/or tomato);
- speck (smoked cured prosciutto from Tyrol), brie, salsa rosa;
- speck, goat cheese, arugula;
- grilled vegetables and cheese (see below for a recipe).
When Italian panini are offered outside of Italy, they tend to differ quite substantially. The biggest no-no’s are the use of:
- More than one kind of meat (although it may happen in some cases, this is very unlikely in Italy);
- Large amounts of meat (in Italy, more than a few slices would be considered overpowering);
- Too many ingredients (in Italy, it’s never more than 3 or 4 in total);
- Any kind of dressing (oil and vinegar are for salads, not for sandwiches!);
- Honey-mustard, barbecue sauce, spicy mayo (since they don’t exist in Italy).
For un-grilled Italian sandwiches, bread rolls that are light and crunchy are generally used (for instance the michetta, known in some parts of Italy as ‘rosetta’ or ‘tartaruga’). As far as fillings go, they generally include one feature ingredient, for instance:
- prosciutto ‘crudo’ (raw, cured pork);
- prosciutto ‘cotto’ (Italian ham);
- coppa, also known as capicollo (also cured pork);
- salame (cured sausage);
- Italian bologna (not to be confused with Baloney!) and other kinds of mortadella;
- pancetta (Italian bacon);
- bresaola (cured beef);
Sometimes, fresh greens and/or cheese may be added to complement the flavor. For instance, prosciutto crudo may be had with ‘stracchino‘ and arugula; prosciutto cotto with fontina. Other classic options include cold frittata (e.g.: with herbs or roasted zucchini), or cold breaded veal cutlet.
Now, onto the recipe for the grilled panino in the picture above – a slight variation on the grilled vegetables and cheese theme, thanks to the addition of spicy roasted onions.
Ingredients for 2 panini
– One small onion (sliced)
– 2 bell peppers, red or yellow (seeded and each cut in 4 wedges)
– 2 zucchini (sliced)
– 100 g provolone, scamorza or fontina (sliced)
– one handful of fresh arugula (washed and dried)
– 1 tablespoon of olive oil
– salt and cayenne pepper
– In a non-stick pan, roast the onion in olive oil at medium heat for 5 minutes, then lower the temperature and cook for an additional 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and cayenne pepper.
– Using a sandwich press, grill the bell peppers (lightly sprinkled with salt) for 20-30 minutes at medium heat.
– When the peppers are ready, put them aside and peel off the skin (it should come off easily – if it doesn’t, let the peppers rest for 10 minutes in a sealed zip-lock while they are still warm).
– Grill the zucchini (also sprinkled with salt) for 10-15 minutes at medium heat.
– When the zucchini are ready, put them aside and roughly wipe the grill clean, while keeping it turned on.
– Assemble the sandwich by layering the cheese, the grilled vegetables, and the roasted onions.
– Warm up the sandwiches in the press until the cheese melts. Then add the fresh arugula and serve.