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David Lissner
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Eat this! Panini, Italy’s answer to grilled cheese

Salute’s panino

Salute Wine Bar’s panino. (Photo by Baltazar Malysa.)

What it is: Panini are gussied-up grilled-cheese sandwiches, typically heated in a sandwich press. In correct Italian, one sandwich is a panino, but in America, you’ll hear “a panini” almost everywhere.

Salute owner Dominic Gaziano

Salute owner
Dominic Gaziano

Where it comes from: The word panini, which means “small breads” in Italian, stems from the Latin cum panis, “with bread.” While the all-American grilled cheese likely dates from the 1920s, when pre-sliced bread and commercial cheese first became widely available, the first documented reference to panini in U.S. print was in 1956. In Italy, panunto (“greased bread”) appeared in a 16th-century cookbook by Domenico Ramoli, but sandwiches as we know them weren’t documented 300 years later. The fashion for panini came out of Milanese bars, called paninoteche in the 1970s and ’80s, and quickly spread to trendy U.S. restaurants.

In Italy, panini are often made with rolls, don’t necessarily contain cheese and don’t even need to be grilled, but the U.S. use of the word is strictly for hot, pressed sandwiches with melted cheese gluing warm, crunchy bread slices together.

What to do with it: While an electric sandwich press makes panini especially easy, you can make do with a frying pan and a spatula, though you’ll have to flip it over halfway through cooking. Almost anything can go into these sandwiches. At Salute Wine Bar in River North, the signature panini are filled with thin slices of prosciutto, creamy blue cheese and truffled fig butter.

Salute Wine Bar’s panino
Dominic Gaziano

Truffled fig butter:
2 dried figs
Red wine
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon white truffle oil or to taste

2 slices ciabatta bread
1 ounce prosciutto
1 ounce gorgonzola dolce latte cheese
Butter for greasing the grill

Make the butter: Steep the figs in red wine to cover until softened, chop, and combine with the butter. Stir in truffle oil to taste.

Make the sandwich: Spread truffled fig butter on each slice of bread, layer on the prosciutto and crumble the cheese over the top.

Grill in a sandwich press for 2 minutes, until the bread gets crispy, or cook 2 minutes on each side in a hot, greased frying pan, pressing down well with a spatula. 1 sandwich.

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