Eli Rallo: The paninaro in me

Monday, February 11, 2019 - 2:33pm

When I was 10 years old, my dad threw out our toaster. To replace it, he cleared about 80 percent of our counter space for a large, steel industrial panini press. Suddenly, our kitchen felt less like our homey space and more like the industrial kitchens of restaurants. Growing up, my friends came over and ogled over the machine: the centerpiece of our kitchen, the shining star of our counter space, the replacement for the rusted, old toaster. From that day on, everything from toaster waffles to grilled cheese was made in the press, and thus began my training as a panini connoisseur. Initially, I was a bit intimidated. What could this panini press do that my old toaster or a skillet with some butter couldn't have done? How would I use it? When would I approach it? 

A panini, or more authentically the “panino,” is a grilled sandwich made with Italian bread such as ciabatta or michetta. My parents never grocery shopped for snacks like Oreos and Goldfish, but they did always make sure we had ciabatta bread, an array of artisan cheeses and other accoutrements to engineer our perfect after school breakfast, lunch or dinner paninos. Paninos became a staple of my every day life, a constant challenge I looked forward to. I took to popping any odd combination or faithful classic in the press that I could engineer from the ingredients in our fridge, from fig jam, brie and turkey on cinnamon bread to braciole, parmigiana and honey on crispy baguette, to peanut butter, banana and jelly on a baguette — everything and anything was willing to transform magically and deliciously in the panini press. 

The panino dates back to 16th century Italian cookbooks; however, the sandwiches became trendy in Milanese bars in the 1960s. In the 1980s the term paninaro arose in Italy with the rise of youth culture represented by patrons of sandwich bars in Milan. With the addition of our panini press, my kitchen transformed into a Milano panini shop, and my brothers and I transformed into the young paninaros of suburban New Jersey. On any given weekday or weekend afternoon, you could find us huddled in our kitchen as salty cheese melted and spilled over the sides of homemade bread and hit the searing hot grill. 

When I say “panini," the first thing that comes to your mind might be a toasted baguette, a thick slab of mozzarella cheese, juicy, slightly sweet tomatoes and slices of basil, all stacked and grilled to perfection and served with balsamic reduction or grassy pesto. While the typical “caprese” panini is for sure a fan favorite and always one I’m willing to have a bite or two of, it’s a bit basic. Ever since my father came home and ceremonially threw away our dingy toaster, I’ve been on the pursuit to the more unique, more idiosyncratic flavors that trump those of the mundane “caprese” sandwich. 

Through my panini journey, I hope you’ll feel inspired to ransack your fridge, hit the grocery store and start on your own unique paninis — there is so much more to the space between two slices of plain bread than we expect. A sandwich is typically seen as the lazy person’s meal, the regular, old lunch or the boring, easy snack. But the panini changes all of that — it transforms a cold, basic sandwich into the crispy, crunchy, warm handheld queen of all foods, kicking aside Wonder Bread, ham and cheese for a prosciutto, provolone and sweet pear panini on fresh, dream-like ciabatta. 

Good Italian bread is where it all starts. My father always told me that bread is the key to success in a panini: The minute the bread is soggy, slightly stale or just bad in general, the sandwich goes down with it. The bread is the anchor of the whole ship: It ensures that the juice and sauce stay soaked into the moist space in the puffy bread without turning it soggy. You cannot have panini success without ciabatta success. The key to good ciabatta, you ask? It’s actually quite simple, despite what one might think. It’s made from wheat flour, water, salt, olive oil and yeast. Paying good attention to how long it should rise and bake is important, but the rest is rather simple. If the bread is perfect, the other ingredients can take center stage and shine. 

My flavor muse is my uncle Bobby. He knows flavor like no other and can always pair the most unlikely ingredients together to make the most gastronomically pleasing dishes. While pondering the perfect sandwich to share with you all, I decided to call him. I knew that he would have had a homemade panini recently, as a fellow panini scientist, and I knew he’d immediately be able to speak on the most distinctive, individual sandwich possible. He said he’d get back to me, as the call took place early in the morning, and he hadn’t had lunch yet. 

The anticipation nearly killed me. 

When he called me back, the first thing he said was, “spicy pickled chicken panini,” and I was immediately intrigued. He told me the process of making the simple, spicy sandwich: 

  1. Chicken thighs brined in spicy Grillo’s pickle juice. Trust him on this one. He is a flavor god. (“Plan ahead! A one day brine with dark, juicy meat is the best!”)
  2. Bread and then pan fry the chicken thighs to a crispy, crunchy golden brown. (“Batter in eggs and Panko bread crumbs”)
  3. Use a crusty roll with light, chewy insides for the perfect happy medium. (“Top secret, it holds all the juice in!”)
  4. Top with mayonnaise, red wine vinegar, thin slices of red onion and Grillo spicy Italian pickle chips for added flavor.  
  5. Press for five minutes –– here’s where the press comes in! (“Half crunch, half chew!”)

After making it myself, the result certainly does not disappoint. This panini is a jack of all trades: It’s creamy, spicy, crunchy, chewy and salty all at once. While the flavors could seem distracting, they somehow come together in a serendipitous moment of crispy perfection. Bobby’s review seems to sum it up perfectly for me:
“Crunch … yes! Chew … yes! Salty … yes! Spicy … yes! Fatty & creamy & delicious … yes!”

The special thing about paninis is that they are so much more than just separate ingredients: in one bite you can have the whole world on your palate as flavors that you never imagined combine and blend. No other food in the world is at once so simple and so complex, so manageable and so high maintenance.

Like I said, the caprese is a fan favorite, but it is overdone and much too basic for the millions of possibilities that can nestle between two slices of perfect, fresh bread. Let that crunchy ciabatta try on some different dressings. Be creative — with a blank canvas of fresh, soft bread you are an artist. Once you open your fridge and turn that panini press on high heat, the possibilities are simply endless.