Sandwiches and panini are a mainstay of Italian cuisine, and worldwide. Take a look at this deep dive into beloved sandwiches and panini, plus my top 10 must-try sandwiches and panini when you visit Italy.
What are sandwiches?
A sandwich is any food - typically vegetables, sliced cheese and meat - placed between two slices of bread, where the bread serves as a wrapper for the other ingredients.
Sandwiches are usually picked up and eaten rather than on a plate using a knife and fork, although some sandwiches require a knife and fork.
There are also open faced sandwiches: one slice of bread is topped with the filling and other ingredients.
Supposedly the sandwich is named after it's inventor, John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. The Wall Street Journal has described the sandwich as “Britain's biggest contribution to gastronomy”.
Sandwiches are a fun picnic food or lunch when everyone makes their own sandwich.
What are panini?
Panini is an Italian word, the plural form of panino, and are Italian sandwiches. Panini are usually prepared on a bread roll or rustic bread. Panini were first referenced in a 16th century Italian cookbook, and then much later in the mid-1950s in the United States.
In Italy panini and sandwiches are street food or bar food that you often find in your local coffee bar or a paninoteca (sandwich shop). Depending on the bread used a panino sandwich may have a different, more specific name.
Tramezzino #1 must-try in Italy
A tramezzino literally translates to in between the half. It's a sandwich made with white bread, crusts removed, filled with sandwich ingredients and then cut in half in a triangular shape.
The word was invented by Italian author Gabriele D’Annunzio back in the early 1900s.
Tramezzini are wrapped up and sold individually as a takeout food. Fillings vary immensely. Some of the most popular tramezzini are filled with prosciutto and cheese, tuna and tomato, tuna and artichoke, cheeses, all kinds of vegetables including eggplant, broccoli rabe and spinach.
Often there is a thin layer of butter or mayonnaise on tramezzini to add a bit of additional moisture.
Club sandwich tramezzini #2 must-try in Italy
Tramezzini are often prepared as a multi-layer sandwich and go by the American name, Club. Again the ingredients are basically the same but the sandwich is multi-layered, with an additional slice or two of bread and more ingredients.
Panino press or grill
Frequently panini and tramezzini sandwiches are heated up or grilled using a panino press. Most Italian households have their own panino press and they are a great way to prepare not just panini and sandwiches but other grilled foods like vegetables, meat or fish. This is a great panino press, at a great price.
A panino press is usually electric and has a bottom and a top heating element. When you order panini and sandwiches in a bar usually you’re asked if you’d like your sandwich hot or cold and the panino press is used to heat (grill) your sandwich or panino.
Take a look at this panino press cookbook.
A few great Italian regional panini and sandwiches
Piadina #3 must-try in Italy
A piadina is a thin flat bread, originally from the Emilia-Romagna region. It's often stuffed with prosciutto, arugula and some kind of melted or soft cheese.
Lampredotto sandwich or panino #4 must-try in Italy
Florence is famous for its quintessential street food, the lampredotto sandwich of roasted cow stomach. The tripe is chopped and slow roasted in a delicious broth with herbs. It's served on a roll and lathered with salsa verde .Here's an Italian cookbook with lampredotto recipes.
Pani ca meusa #5 must-try in Italy
This Sicilian spleen sandwich is served on vastedda bread and it's typically topped with caciocavallo and ricotta cheese. It's a typical Palermo street food, and often you’ll find it deep fried.
Panelle #6 must-try in Italy
A chickpea fritter sandwich is also typical in Palermo, Sicily: starch on starch! It's delicious but high caloric.
Porchetta d’Ariccia (#7 must-try in Italy) and porchetta abruzzese panini
In Rome porchetta d’Ariccia is a favorite filling: slow roasted pork with herbs. When you visit Rome check out the Flavor of Italy day trip to Ariccia and be sure to sample a porchetta d’Ariccia sandwich while you're there!
The Abruzzo region has its own version: porchetta abruzzese.
Stuffed pizza and panino sandwiches
Frequently pizza bianca (plain white pizza) or focaccia is used to make panini and sandwiches. The classic filling is prosciutto and mozzarella cheese. #8 must-try in Italy
Trapizzino #9 must-try in Italy
The trapizzino was invented in Rome and takes its name from the tramezzino. It's a delicious triangular pizza pocket filled with all kinds of luscious ingredients like eggplant Parmesan. Trapizzino has expanded and there are a number of shops throughout Rome and beyond, and several in New York City.
La Tiella #10 must-try in Italy
La tiella is originally from Gaeta, south of Rome along the Mediterranean coast. It's a delicious stuffed pizza pie with all kinds of fillings; my favorite is a seafood filling.
Panini and sandwiches elsewhere
Croque monsieur and croque madame
are both delicious grilled sandwiches typically eaten with a fork and knife. Not a restaurant sandwich but usually a bar or café sandwich.
The French dip sandwich
isn't French at all but instead an American invention. It's called French because it uses French bread, or baguette. Usually the sandwich is filled with beef and you dip it into a delicious broth as you eat it.
England is famous for its fish and chips and a delicious adaptation on this theme is a crispy fish sandwich with tartar sauce.
Americans love sandwiches of all kinds. Whereas in Italy and some other countries sandwiches and panini are a street food or a bar food, in the United States restaurants often have their own sandwich menu.
American sandwiches are often loaded and thick, full of all kinds of delicious ingredients, Sometimes so thick that you really have to eat them with a knife and fork.
BLT, or bacon lettuce and tomato, is one of my favorites and especially delicious when summer tomatoes abound. I made this one using tramezzino bread.
Grilled cheese sandwiches are wonderful made just with delicious cheese or also with added ingredients like tomatoes.
The tuna melt is made with yummy tuna salad (made with canned tuna) and topped with melted cheese.
Reuben (corned beef) and pastrami sandwiches are usually made super thick and delicious, usually with a slice of Swiss cheese and often sauerkraut and Russian dressing.
The Philly cheesesteak sandwich was invented in Philadelphia as the name implies. It's made with beef and cheese, and the original cheese used was cheese whiz. Cheese whiz falls into the category of cheese food rather than actual cheese.
PBJ or peanut butter and jelly sandwich
This is one of my favorites, and a classic sandwich for kids served with a tall glass of cold milk. As a young child I had it every single day for lunch.
The subway sandwich has a host of different names and ingredient variations depending on where you are. In the mid Atlantic and western Pennsylvania area it's known as a hoagie, in New York it's called a hero sandwich, and a grinder in new England.
It's a type of cold or hot sandwich made from a cylindrical bread roll that's loaded with cheeses, meats, condiments and veggies. Depending on where you are the sandwich might be a cold sandwich like you find in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, or a hot grilled sandwich. If you’re ever in Pittsburgh be sure to check out this iconic sandwich shop, Primanti Brothers.
Some sandwiches are strongly tied to certain holidays like the day after Thanksgiving leftover turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich.
Hamburgers are usually made with a beef patty and all kinds of toppings like lettuce, tomato and bacon. You can also find turkey burgers, fish burgers, veggie burgers.
They are indeed a sandwich but they fall into their own unique category. Often they are served along with french fries, and sometimes you'll see french fries inside a sandwich or panino.
Sauces and spreads
A delicious sauce or spread can add extra flavor to sandwiches and panini and also some necessary moisture. Some typical spreads are mayonnaise, mustard, soft spreadable cheese, horseradish, olive oil, balsamic and other vinegars, ketchup, butter, peanut butter, jam and jelly or honey. The sky’s the limit so any sauce or spread can be used on a sandwich or panino. One of my favorites is this Dijon honey mustard. Balsamic vinegar is great on sandwiches and panini, especially made into a Saba sauce, which was invented in Modena, Emilia-Romagna.
It's back-to-school time, and many people are returning to the office after working at home during the pandemic.
A packed lunch, or brown bag lunch as it's often called, usually includes sandwiches and panini. Simple sandwiches and panini usually work best from a messiness standpoint but it's also possible to pack extra sauces and ingredients separately and add them on the spot.
Sandwiches made into soups
In Michele Di Pietro's cookbook, Soupified she's taken a few iconic sandwiches and turned them into delicious soups: the Reuben sandwich, Bacon Cheeseburger and Philly cheesesteak. Have a listen to our podcast episode all about Soupified.
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