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The Last Picnic : The Pleasures of Panini

September 02, 1993|VIANA LA PLACE | La Place is the author of "Panini, Bruschetta, Crostini," which will be published by William Morrow in the spring of 1994

The sandwich may not have originated in Italy, but nowhere else is it prepared with such care and creativity. Perhaps this is due to the quality and diversity of Italian bread, the array of fresh and healthy ingredients available, and the simplicity with which Italians combine them. Italians have taken to the form and given sandwiches a name of their own-- panini.

By nature, Italians have a highly developed sense of play and imagination (think of the multitude of pasta shapes), and they bring these characteristics to the task of fashioning bread into different shapes and flavors. From the hands of the bread baker comes a range of breads to choose from when making panini : michette , round rolls with hollow centers; fat, cigar-shaped loaves called filone ; focaccia , a flatbread, sparkling with sea salt or fragrant with herbs; little rolls as small as cherries to stuff with elegant fillings, and many other breads that are rustic, regional or refined.

Panini have become a part of Italy's eating tradition: a light bite between meals, miniature panini served with drinks before dinner, hearty panini tucked into a basket and eaten on a picnic or on the train. Even in the land of the long lunch, busy working people can often be found leaning against the counter of a bar eating freshly prepared panini chosen from an enticing array.

Here in California, what could be more delightful than enjoying the tastes of panini al fresco ? After all, sandwiches are the ideal picnic food: easy to make, easy to transport and easy to eat. And when made Italian-style, they take on a whole new dimension.

With our very own Mediterranean-like climate--blue water, palm trees and sultry summer days--this is perfect land for picnicking. What better way to recreate the joyous feeling of life than to bite into a panino tasting of Italy, while picnicking by the sea?

Of course, Italians don't need to go very far to satisfy their craving for panini. Bars and caffes are where much of the panini action takes place, and there seems to be one on every street and street corner; they are in bus stations and airports, at beach and mountain resorts, in large public parks, and at the end of dusty and desolate country roads. Small villages may have only one bar or two competing ones, but they are important gathering places, where locals share news and socialize.

The majority are neighborhood places for grabbing an espresso, swallowed in a few quick sips, drinking a small cold beer on a hot afternoon, enjoying a diabolically bitter digestivo or having a fluffy cappuccino and cornetto (croissant) before heading off for work in the morning. At a bar, panini and drinks are dispensed from behind the counter and consumed while standing; caffes offer seating and are equipped with waiters. The first offers speed, the second the pleasure of lingering.

In Rome, some of the best caffes may be found within a short distance from each other.

Caffe Greco is located on a fashionable shopping street, the Via Condotti, which leads directly into the heart of the Piazza di Spagna. Outside the caffe's doors is a constant stream of humanity--families, flocks of school children, glamorous women, sleek and bronzed and adorned with jewels, and tourists, waves of tourists. Even the woman selling hot roasted chestnuts and green olives from a barrel in the Piazza di Spagna seems to pity the weary but determined tourists as she watches them go by.

Located in the same spot for more than two centuries, this venerable caffe offers a respite to all--tourists and Romans, young and old. Behind its beautiful polished wood doors is a series of elegant rooms, walls lined with gilt-framed mirrors reflecting golden light, making you feel you've traveled into the past. Antique marble-topped tables and banquettes covered in worn crimson velvet are set against a background of colored smoky vanilla. Waiters in slightly faded formal attire bear silver trays laden with small sandwiches, pastries and assorted drinks.

Although the sandwiches at Caffe Greco are far from the best to be found in Rome, the setting is so enchanting that you surrender to it and enjoy the show: two wealthy Roman matrons with matching Yorkshire terriers drinking espressos; Japanese tourists dressed head to toe in Italian designer fashions sipping white wine; an American actor and director talking Hollywood, seated next to a refined old Italian gentleman, his cane propped against his little caffe table, and the jolliest of the lot, three British women on holiday enjoying their cappuccinos, one commenting that if this caffe were in her neighborhood, she'd be "nippin' in 'ere all the time!"

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