I remember the first time I had what I guess would be called a “panino”. It was back in the early nineties and we were in Seattle and not far from Pike’s Market there was a small shop using an Italian sandwich grill and they were making these delicious hot sandwiches that had been pressed and served warm. I can’t remember exactly what kind I ordered, but I think it had chopped artichoke hearts and I do have memories of it being wonderful and I was fascinated! The filling was warm and cheesy and the bread was crispy. My catering partner N. was with me (along with J.) and it was like a light bulb lit up over our heads at the same time. We were in the planning stages for opening our cafe and knew that we had to add these incredible sandwiches to our menu.
I realize that this probably sounds hard to believe, but at the time no one, and I mean no one was making sandwiches on a panini grill (of course I’m talking about the US, not Italy!). This place in Seattle was the very first place we had ever seen them and we had been on a serious quest to eat a lot of sandwiches as we worked on the menu for our cafe. When we returned to San Diego we decided that we would purchase one of these grills, but finding one without going to Italy wasn’t as easy as we had hoped. After scouring all the restaurant supply stores, we were about to give up when we made a visit to a charming Italian man to order our espresso machine. On a whim we asked him about the panini grill and he said that indeed he could order one for us. It wasn’t inexpensive, but it probably was one of the best investments that we made.
Our cafe was tiny and we only had about five sandwiches on our menu, two of them being grilled. These ended up being the most popular items that we served. One was a caprese, using the ingredients of the classic salad-tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella and the other was our own creation that featured roasted eggplant, sundried tomatoes, red onion and feta cheese. We enlisted a wonderful French man (who owned an Italian deli with his wife from Venice) to make bread for us. The grill was small by today’s commercial panini makers and we could only do two at a time. I have memories of standing there wishing we had purchased two grills as the orders piled up during the lunch rush.
We were about twelve years ahead of the panini craze and I laugh now when I see all sorts of sandwiches being touted as “Italian panini”. Last night I cringed when there was an ad on TV for “hot pocket panini.” Where will it all end? Yesterday for lunch I had an urge to have that simple caprese-tomatoes and basil from our garden, a little extra virgin olive oil from Umbria that we brought home from our stay and freshly baked bread from one of the few great bakers in San Diego. So simple and so delicious-it’s all about the best ingredients!