I'll bet a hundred bucks that panino, the Italian word for sandwich, will soon slip off your tongue like honey.
Pretty soon, you'll start noticing restaurant menus and sandwich shops featuring panini (plural) exclusively. You'll find them at such places as the MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) cafe, Il Panino, in the new downtown museum complex, and at a spot in Beverly Hills called Giannino's. You'll see them on the menu at Il Piccolino and at Angeli Caffe, both in Los Angeles, and you'll see them at picnics and party buffets.
An Italian might shrug if you ask the origin of panino. Said Celestino Drago, who operates Il Panino, "No one ever asks where or how they came about. They are just there."
In Italy, panini are everywhere. They are fast food eaten on the run, to and from work, on the job, in train stations, in cars on the street. Sky-high piles of panini are packed in glass cases at almost every bakery and coffee shop for the hordes who want to grab a bite before or after work or a movie. Mothers pack them in schoolchildren's lunch bags.
The ever-growing numbers of young, fast food lovers in Italy, called paninari, prefer the social scene at sandwich shops and McDonald's golden arches to the family dinner table, where every family member should be, but no longer is, to the chagrin of traditionalists bemoaning the disintegration of the Italian family fiber.
In Milan, upscale paninotecas have emerged only in the last five years as havens for gourmet sandwich-eaters, who stand at tables to nibble on such fillings as duck or wild boar prosciutto while sipping fine wine.
In Los Angeles, the panino has just begun to find a place among those who enjoy Italian flavors and great bread. For it's the bread that distinguishes every panino. The word derives from the word pane, meaning bread. There are dozens of different types of bread used for panini. Every region in Italy boasts a specialty. In Tuscany, you'll find michetta, a roll with a hole in middle, a strong favorite, whereas in Milan the specialty is rosetta, a rosette-shaped roll, and in Genoa it is focaccia, a flatbread with baked-on flavorings such as pesto, garlic butter and onions.
The rolls may be elongated, round, square or flat. They may be seasoned or not. We give a few recipes for dough typically used in panini, but you can also use store-bought rolls and loaves found in fancy food shops as well as the neighborhood supermarket. Some Italian bakeries such as Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica carry several popular panino varieties used by Il Panino, including michetta and ciabatta. Kaiser rolls, onion rolls and the like are ideally suited for panini. Square loaves such as pane in cassetta , ideal for grilling, can easily be substituted with firm-textured white or wheat bread.
In Italy, with the exception perhaps of those found at paninotecas in Milan, panino fillings tend to be traditional types--sausage, roast peppers, cheeses, tomatoes, vegetables, mortadella, salamis and other sausages. In Sicily, veal and chicken cutlets are slapped between two pieces of bread. Roast peppers are also a popular panino filling.
The panini appearing in Los Angeles, however, are something else. "They are not as fancy as those you'd find at the paninotecas in Milan, because we want to educate slowly, but they are interesting," Drago said.
Actually, anything goes.
At the MOCA cafe, Il Panino, Drago has introduced eight sandwich fillings that are California variations on the traditional Italian theme. In a sandwich called Milano, sliced turkey is served with California goat cheese, avocado, sun-dried tomatoes, and arugula. A smoked salmon and mascarpone cheese filling is garnished with salmon roe, capers and chives.
Evan Kleiman, chef and co-owner of Angeli, a California-style Italian restaurant, fell in love with the sandwiches on her first visit to Italy at the age of 16 and does take-offs on traditional themes. "You open your mind to what is put in between two pieces of bread," she said.
A sandwich Kleiman has called panino rustico contains chicken salad, dressed with Dijon mustard and arugula. This and other fillings such as roast pork are found in her book, "Cucina Fresca," co-authored with Viana La Place (Harper & Row: 1985). The roast pork is seasoned with Dijon mustard and topped with pickled onions.
Dino Baglioni of Il Piccolino restaurant in Los Angeles serves several types of panini, including some using long, tapered rolls and round ones. They may be filled with red and green peppers and sausages; veal scaloppine with mozzarella cheese or ricotta cheese with prosciutto. There is also a sandwich made with smoked salmon, horseradish and capers.