You say panini... Whatever it's called, fad here to stay

Remember the simple luxury of a gooey grilled cheese sandwich on a cold afternoon? Sure, this American classic still exists in its purest, most platonic form-­ two slices of bread, some unspecified cheese– in diners and restaurants around town and country. Yet, if you're like me, you've been noticing a more complex and worldly grilled sandwich competitor popping up with increasing frequency on local menus, from Fuel, Co.'s café to The Baker's Palate to Wild Greens, Vivace and even Smoothie King: the "panini."

If you've been to Italy or understand the basics of the language, you might see why it's so difficult for me, an Italian teacher by profession, to say or write "the panini." That's because in Italy, panini is actually the plural of panino, just like biscotti is the plural of biscotto. A diminutive of pane (bread), panino can be translated as "little bread/roll" or "sandwich," depending on the context.

If you and a friend go to any bakery from Turin to Taranto and ask for due panini, you'll get two mini-loaves or rolls in a paper bag. If you make the same request in a bar/caffé, you'll be asked which ingredients you'd like in your sandwiches. The choice tends to be quite select and involves various combinations of: prosciutto ("cotto"/boiled or "crudo"/raw, cured), speck (smoked, cured pork), mozzarella, formaggio (cheese), tonno (tuna), and pomodoro (tomato). No mustard or mayo.

Bread types vary according to region and can be soft or crusty round rolls, slices from larger loaves or focaccia. Unlike the American interpretation, Italian panini are not necessarily grilled, though they can be.

So how did this simple Italian panino evolve into panini possibilities like Grilled Greek Chicken (Wild Greens), The Cheese Head and Rocco Z (Higher Grounds), Vegetarian (City Centro) and The Classic: Cheddar, Avocado, Bacon and Tomato (Fuel)?

William Trager of Higher Grounds appears to be the Columbus of Charlottesville when it comes to panini (not to mention serious coffee and concrete floors). A native of Seattle, Trager says that panini were as common as coffeehouses as far back as the early '90s.

"Just about every coffee cart had a panini grill," he told Dish. When Higher Grounds opened eight years ago, Downtown Mall classic panini like "The Bird" and "The Caprese" were there. So what's Trager's definition of the sandwich genre?

"Panini are grilled press sandwiches made with focaccia bread and fresh ingredients-­ absolutely no mayonnaise," he says.

Continuing in this coffee-panini tradition is the five-year-old City Centro, which started making panini on Albermarle Baking Co.'s focaccia last year, when this foodie fad spread.

"Panini are perfect for us since they're very portable and they go well with soups," says owner Andreas Gaynor. City Centro also cuts their panini into "fingers" for dipping and sharing. A sign of their mainstream, as well as winter-weather appeal, the Smoothie King franchise offers two panini options during the colder months.

So why call them "panini" instead of just "grilled sandwiches"? In most cases, we have the grill itself­ not just the Italian prototype-­ to thank.

"We went with 'panini' as opposed to different sayings because we use the Italian grill of that name to press the sandwiches, " explains Patricia Kluge of Fuel, Co. Sheila and Tom Cervelloni of The Baker's Palate offered a similar rationale, though they decided to use a small focaccia round for their panini to honor the Italian. Challenging this theory is Smoothie King, which uses a super-sized George Foreman grill to press its panini into submission.

Offering a different perspective is Feast! where a Eurodib Panini Maker from Italy does the deed on many of its sandwiches - called, simply, "sandwiches."

"We found that people were confused by what panini were," says Kate Collier of their choice to stick with English. "For us, a grilled cheese is just a grilled cheese."

Even if it happens to have nine different cheeses and roasted red peppers and is grilled on a focaccia round inspired by a "panino" that Collier's fiancé, Eric Gertner, brought back from a trip to Piemonte.

Whatever they're called, let's be thankful that these glorious grilled cheeses are here, it seems, to stay. But if you do plan on ordering in Italian, ask for a panino or two panin– and make your teacher's day!

That's panino to you!
br>PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

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