Panino, the Italian Sandwich

panino, the italian sandwich

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In Italy, just like in all Europe and North America, a ‘panino’ (Italian for sandwich) is a popular lunch option, and in some cases also a quick dinner alternative. Italian bars often press-grill their sandwiches to enhance the flavors, turn the bread more fragrant and crunchy, and melt any cheese. However, at home, or when bakery-fresh bread is available, the Italians enjoy non-grilled sandwiches just the same.

This article describes both styles of Italian sandwich: the world-famous grilled sandwich (known as Panini) and the less known un-grilled version.

Going back to the word “panini”, in Italian it refers to all sandwiches – and it’s plural. «One sandwich» translates as ‘un panino’ (from ‘pane’, bread). «Two sandwiches» translates as ‘due panini’ and shouldn’t be re-pluralized as Paninis – it causes native Italians to cringe!

A “Panini” press

Grilled panini are prepared in a “Panini” press (called ‘piastra’, literally: plate). In Italy, they generally feature established combinations of fillings, though these combinations don’t have universally assigned names. Common types of bread used are: ciabatta, francesino (a small French-style roll), and in some cases focaccia. Classic fillings combinations are:

  • mozzarella, tomato (plus arugula and/or prosciutto cotto or crudo);
  • prosciutto cotto or crudo, fontina, salsa rosa (“pink sauce”, made of mayonnaise, ketchup and whiskey);
  • prosciutto cotto or crudo, brie (plus lettuce and/or tomato);
  • prosciutto cotto, brie, olive tapenade;
  • prosciutto crudo or bresaola, goat cheese or stracchino (plus lettuce and/or tomato);
  • speck (smoked cured prosciutto from Tyrol), brie, salsa rosa;
  • speck, goat cheese, arugula;
  • grilled vegetables and cheese (see below for a recipe).

When Italian panini are offered outside of Italy, they tend to differ quite substantially. The biggest no-no’s are the use of:

  • More than one kind of meat (although it may happen in some cases, this is very unlikely in Italy);
  • Large amounts of meat (in Italy, more than a few slices would be considered overpowering);
  • Too many ingredients (in Italy, it’s never more than 3 or 4 in total);
  • Any kind of dressing (oil and vinegar are for salads, not for sandwiches!);
  • Honey-mustard, barbecue sauce, spicy mayo (since they don’t exist in Italy).

For un-grilled Italian sandwiches, bread rolls that are light and crunchy are generally used (for instance the michetta, known in some parts of Italy as ‘rosetta’ or ‘tartaruga’). As far as fillings go, they generally include one feature ingredient, for instance:

  • prosciutto ‘crudo’ (raw, cured pork);
  • prosciutto ‘cotto’ (Italian ham);
  • coppa, also known as capicollo (also cured pork);
  • salame (cured sausage);
  • Italian bologna (not to be confused with Baloney!) and other kinds of mortadella;
  • pancetta (Italian bacon);
  • bresaola (cured beef);
  • porchetta.

Sometimes, fresh greens and/or cheese may be added to complement the flavor. For instance, prosciutto crudo may be had with ‘stracchino‘ and arugula; prosciutto cotto with fontina. Other classic options include cold frittata (e.g.: with herbs or roasted zucchini), or cold breaded veal cutlet.


Now, onto the recipe for the grilled panino in the picture above – a slight variation on the grilled vegetables and cheese theme, thanks to the addition of spicy roasted onions.

Ingredients for 2 panini
– One small onion (sliced)
– 2 bell peppers, red or yellow (seeded and each cut in 4 wedges)
– 2 zucchini (sliced)
– 100 g provolone, scamorza or fontina (sliced)
– one handful of fresh arugula (washed and dried)
– 1 tablespoon of olive oil
– salt and cayenne pepper

– In a non-stick pan, roast the onion in olive oil at medium heat for 5 minutes, then lower the temperature and cook for an additional 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and cayenne pepper.
– Using a sandwich press, grill the bell peppers (lightly sprinkled with salt) for 20-30 minutes at medium heat.
– When the peppers are ready, put them aside and peel off the skin (it should come off easily – if it doesn’t, let the peppers rest for 10 minutes in a sealed zip-lock while they are still warm).
– Grill the zucchini (also sprinkled with salt) for 10-15 minutes at medium heat.
– When the zucchini are ready, put them aside and roughly wipe the grill clean, while keeping it turned on.
– Assemble the sandwich by layering the cheese, the grilled vegetables, and the roasted onions.
– Warm up the sandwiches in the press until the cheese melts. Then add the fresh arugula and serve.

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15 thoughts on “Panino, the Italian Sandwich”

  1. Nice post with lots of great information, as always. So now I'm craving a panino. There's an Italian deli nearby, and I will be on my way this afternoon. I do have to admit that I sometimes get two meats :O (Coppa and salame toscana)

  2. Mmmmmm buoni (tutti)! I love the way you explained it! Very clear! Quella dei 2 plurali e' una cosa cosi' diffusa (e un po' fastidiosa)… paninis, biscottis….. mmm I wonder why…

  3. Manu, thanks – I hope that by explaining things I can make a small difference!

    Nami, I wouldn't call these 'lessons', but thanks! I'm curious, what do you put in your grilled sandwiches?

  4. Thanks, Paolo. I majored in sandwiches at university–at least, that's what my flatmates joked–so this article is particularly interesting to me.

    I'm glad to read that Italians only use one kind of meat, and not too much of it. I do the same with my sandwiches, but always wondered if my sandwiches were manly enough. It's strange how manliness gets associated with food. In Japan, if you like ice cream, you're not a true man. In Canada, real men eat big slabs of meat. What the heck is wrong with us?

    "Panino"–I love it. That's the perfect word for Yaletown. I'll bust out that word and earn new yuppy respect!

    I'm really curious about this "salsa rosa". It sounds like something I would have tried to make in university, but failed. There are variations on mayonnaise, ketchup, and especially whiskey. Which kinds are best, and in what proportions?

  5. Thanks Jason for you comment, very entertaining 🙂 You are right about manliness – another example is the aperitivo, definitely considered a girly drink in North America!

    I hate to disappoint you, but I don't really know how to answer your question on "salsa rosa". It somehow became popular in Italy during the '80s as an ingredient of a few kinds of panino, but "salsa rosa" isn't Italian at all. However, it seems similar to some kinds of Cocktail Sauce, maybe that's where it comes from.

  6. When I was a college student in Italy, we routinely ordered panini in a bar or perhaps a tavola calda and were served a hollow roll with silky bread and a delicate crust. This was the pattern from Rome to Florence to Venice.
    Years later I was puzzled when the word “panino” suddenly popped up in America applied to a sandwich.
    Still more years later, upon returning to Italy, I found “panino” meant a sandwich there too, and for years could not find the delicate hollow rolls we used to have. Finally I located them under the name “rosetta” in Rome.
    Now I’m wondering if there was a change in word use in Italy over the years, or if I was failing to specify fillings, and so got an empty roll for my sandwich!
    In either case, the rosette were delicious, and the hollow lobes were great for a hungry student to load with apricot jam or nutella, or eat with soft cheese and winter pears.

    1. Hi Mark, in Italian panino is both a roll of bread and a sandwich. Technically the latter is a “panino imbottito” (= filled roll), but nobody calls it like that anymore. As a bread roll, “panino” is a generic name, it means small “pane” (= bread). Rosetta is a specific kind of bread roll in the shape of a flower, “rosetta” means small rose. Every region has their own rolls, as an example in Lombardy we have the “michetta”. I’m realizing that this is a fascinating topic, I should probably write a more in-depth article 🙂

  7. Thanks for the clarification. Good to know I’m not losing my mind. The early 1970s when I was a kid in Rome must have been the waning days of the distinction between “panino” for a roll and “panino imbottito” for a sandwich.
    Though I dearly love Paris as much as Rome, and shouldn’t pick favorites, when it comes to bread, I think a fresh rosetta leaves french bread in the dust.
    Yes, it would be great if you someday did an article on regional distinctions in breads and rolls. I imagine that could involve a lifetime’s research.
    Thanks, Paolo

  8. The problems with singular vs plural are rampant and not only in Italy. One pastry is a cannolo, not a cannoli. Raviolo is the singular, not ravioli. In Spanish, nouns ending in a consonant are made plural by adding an es. Adding an s, like in English, is reserved for the plural form of nouns ending in a vowel. Tamales are plural. TAMAL is the singular. You would never know it from the wide use of TAMALE in the US. There ‘ain’t’ no such word in Spanish.
    Back to food. I read there is a regional soft roll around Bologna for your mortadella sandwich and wonder what it is and what is a good substitute? Thanks

    1. Hi Jeff, thanks so much for your comment and contribution! Absolutely agree 🙂 As for your question, I am not from Bologna, but when I was living in Vancouver I was able to find Portuguese rolls quite easily, and I think it would be a good option. I’m sure they’d taste amazing with some good mortadella!

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