New York, NY — Paninis: Where are they now?
Hot panini scoop! (Photo by Squid Ink)
In the early aughts I was working at Conde Nast, and one day a new coworker who had never really spent time in Midtown came busting into my cubicle: "Jen, have you heard of paninis? They're amazing!" We were at Peak Panini then, but those outside of Midtown didn't always know they existed—Midtown was then, and is now, the Panini District.
The trend really seemed to be focused on the lunch-breaking Manhattanite, but around that time it did spread to menus in other areas (and made a brief appearance amongst the Park Slope parenting set). It's rare, but you can still to this day see remnants of this trend on menus outside of a Midtown Pret A Manger.
Chances are you ordered paninis during its trending era, but have since taken them off your rotating options at lunch. My theory is that the cheap delis and chains co-opted the panini so quickly here that it has given us all a subpar association with the sandwich. At press (heh) time, only one out of eight Gothamist staffers polled admitted to still ordering paninis; Lauren Evans speaks for the rest of us: "I only order them when desperate, but I have never not regretted it. I have never said 'I am enjoying this panini.'"
Of course, the panini wasn't born in Midtown, Midtown is just where it went to live in mediocrity. According to Wikipedia the panini may have first appeared in a 16th-century Italian cookbook. And hey, paninis in Italy are probably terrific, but we're talking about the American bastardization of the panini here. Just close your eyes and picture one: what do you see? For me, it's a hard crust enveloping caprese salad fixins, with a sad, soggy basil leaf peeking through the once melted, but now hardened mozzarella. Trying to escape, but destined to die inside. Just like you after you eat a panini.
So, when did these flat-pressed things get here? While the first stateside reference in a newspaper is reportedly from 1956, Andrew F. Smith of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America places its popularity timestamp in the 1990s—he has said, "Panini is the Americanized version of the Italian word "panino,' which refers to a class of sandwiches that became popular in the U.S. in the late 1990s." Even the Grey Lady was initially baffled by the food item—the first reference to it that we found in the New York Times comes from March of 1982, when a question about "a fine bread called panini" was posed by a reader. Here was the paper's response:
"I found a description of panini in an old regional Italian cookbook. It is a specialty of the Easter season in the Friuli region of northeastern Italy and, the book notes, it is rarely made today. It is a sweet bread made of yellow corn meal, yeast, sugar, butter, milk and raisins with a slight flavor of lemon."
We await the long overdue correction... though that does sound better than an actual panini.
Let's face it, a panini is no grilled cheese, and in the hot sandwich game, grilled cheese will always reign supreme. But if you are going to panini, do it right. As Cooking For Compliments points out, "Real panini connoisseurs [LOL] will discuss at lengths and have been overheard arguing over which breads are best with which filling." And we can all agree that paninis should never include pita bread, as pictured above.