Panini is the plural form for panino, which is literally the term for “small bread roll” in Italian. Technically, any sliced bread shouldn’t be called a panini or panino, but even in Italy, most sandwich shop operators will let you get by with calling everything a panini. This wonderful hot sandwich is a moneymaker as long as you pay attention to the details.
My introduction to panini in 1990 was ugly. I had just checked in to leave Italy from the Rome airport. My girlfriend and I had been fighting since Florence (she was wrong, of course), and I left her sulking at the gate to seek out my lunch. Then I saw the love of my life nestled behind a slick glass case. She was a sandwich to end all sandwiches –– a square ciabatta bun, thin sliced Prosciutto di Parma, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella. The canoe-hatted guy behind the counter set his eyes on me and I just pointed. He grabbed the sandwich and turned around as I put my money on the counter. I waited for a minute smiling and from behind, the guy looked like he was performing brain surgery. Then he turned around and presented the wrong sandwich; this one was as flat as a cat on the interstate with crispy brown grill marks as the gooey white cheese flowed out from inside.
“Ah no, this ain’t mine,” I said with brilliant American disdain.
“Deez panino,” he said trumping me with an even better Italian version of aloof contempt.
“Whatever it is, it ain’t mine, that’s the one I ordered,” I said, pointing to the case at a look-alike of my previous lover-sandwich.
The man pointed to what looked like a waffle-iron on the back counter and mimicked pressing the sandwich to the point of hissing. He then leaned across the counter. “This eez panino, you eat, good.”
I decided to beat a hasty retreat with an “I knew that” look on my face. Halfway back, I took a bite and stopped in my tracks. The flavor was brilliant and had all the qualities of a great grilled cheese sandwich of my youth but with the best fillings known to man. I turned around to order another panino.
There are several elements to a good panini grill. To distinguish the crisp from the crap, consider the following:
- Flat versus grilled. Flat panini grills tend to cook unevenly and do not have the grill marks that are the “finesse” of any panino sandwich. If using a baguette or ciabatta-type bread, the flat heating produces a shiny dark skid mark on ciabatta and baguette bark while the rest of the bun is untouched. Grills are harder to clean but flat Panini presses tend to beckon your staff to start grilling chicken, pepperoni and pancakes on them, which leads to a big mess, unsanitary conditions and monetary loss.
- Cheap versus expensive. Like all things, in the restaurant business, you get what you pay for. Panini grills can be obtained from $24 at cheap department stores or more than $1,000 for large, reliable models.
- Dual or single press. In today’s world of fast food, nothing is worse than waiting for a panini because the grills are all full or worse yet, the panini maker has to lift the top heating element to get other finished panino, thus making the cook time on other sandwiches longer. Dual-loading panini presses enable you to load different buns and filled panini for different lengths of cook-time.
- Weight and balance: Most professional panini makers have heavier lids that are counter-balanced for a more even cook. This is priority when cooking a panino thoroughly. If you see the instruction “Only put the panini in the rear of the press,” don’t buy it.
Panini has a way of reaching a great niche for any pizzeria. You can easily use toppings from your pizza make line to create a new and easy sandwich in a fraction of the time it takes to cook breadsticks! Let’s deconstruct the elements of panini:
- Bread. Rolls or hoagie buns look better as a panino but have a longer cook time. Sliced bread is faster but more flat, leading to a value-for-dollar question in customer’s heads. When using rolls, ciabatta or baguettes, par-cooked is best; crusty breads tend to burn quicker.
- Cheese. The biggest reason anyone would want a heated sandwich is to melt cheese. Panini without cheese are like Cuban cigars without a match. If you design panini without cheese, you need to make it more interesting with toppings that add hydration and moisture to the inner sanctum of the sandwich, like a flavored mayonnaise, pestos or even fruit.
- Protein. Not all meats are the same. Pepperoni looks great on a pizza because it is in your customers face but hidden away in a panino, it tends to disappear. I’ve found that folding meats like salami, ham or turkey in a panino helps with perception. If you do use proteins like pepperoni, train your staff to let a few hang-out of the bun.
- Vegetables. The crunch of a great romaine or some peppery arugula on a sandwich is unbeatable but when these types of vegetables get heated with meat and cheese, they sometimes lose the crunch and leave a mushy texture and that almost-moldy taste of day-old sandwich lettuce. Too much lettuce also inhibits heating the cheese. My all-time favorite in the panini grill is fresh spinach because it bulks a sandwich up, adds green vitamins and yet tastes great if it does or doesn’t wilt. Pre-cooked vegetables are also a great selling point like sliced potato, beetroot, kohlrabi, squash, zucchini and even pumpkin.
Try these classic combinations on for size:
- The Caprese: fill a ciabatta bun with fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, sliced tomato, extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt.
- The New Yorker: combine your cheese blend with pepperoni, cooked sausage crumbles and a very few thin fresh red onion slices.
- Hawaiian: ham, cheddar, bacon and pineapple on a baguette loaf.
- Rueben: corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese on thickly sliced rye.
- French Dip: sliced roast beef and add your cheese blend with French fries and sliced pickles. Have a beef jus on the side.
- Buffalo Chicken: fill with gorgonzola, ranch dressing, boneless wings that are cut horizontally, wing sauce and press. When done, stab with a sharpened celery spear.
Feeling a little more adventurous? Try these:
- Chicken Yakitori: stuff a baguette with horizontally sliced boneless wings, thinly sliced onion, provolone cheese, teriyaki sauce and canned mandarin oranges.
- Californo Panini: Brie, avocado and marinated artichokes with smoked turkey and arugula.
- Pesto Chicken: fill a ciabatta with asiago, fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, sliced boneless wings, bacon, cashew and tomato.
- The Fig Fireball: Pancetta and gruyere with fig jam, kimchi and Calabrian chili oil on a ciabatta.
- Panana: banana, nutella, ricotta and mascarpone with M&Ms on thick-sliced brioche.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. He is speaker at International Pizza Expo and a member of the World Pizza Champions.