A panino is, quite simply, an Italian sandwich made on a small loaf of bread. The word “panino” literally means “small bread roll” in Italian. These sandwiches are quite diverse, running the gamut from cold sandwiches to hot grilled varieties, and they are available in many regions of Italy. The panino has also become popular outside of Italy, especially in its grilled form, with many cafes offering this sandwich on their menus.
There is some confusion over the correct terminology for this sandwich. Technically, a single sandwich is a panino, while multiple sandwiches are panini. As often happens when food crosses cultural boundaries, many English speakers refer to a panino as a panini, despite the fact that this is not correct. Adding to the confusion, the sandwich is pluralized in English as “paninis,” much to the dismay of Italian speakers.
Americans in particular also tend to be unaware that grilling is not a defining characteristic of this sandwich, because panini are usually grilled in American cafes. In Italy, a panino may be a simple loaf of bread smeared with cheese, or an elaborate heated concoction which bears the distinctive marks of a sandwich press.
Ciabatta or slipper bread is a classic bread for making panini, although other small loaves may be used as well. Some cooks use slices or wedges of bread, such as wedges of focaccia or slices of a more conventional loaf. Ideally, the bread used in a panino is crusty and chewy, with a mild flavor which allows the ingredients in the sandwich to become the stars of the dish. The bread may be drizzled with olive oil, or smeared with cheese before being used to sandwich cold cuts, cured meats, pickled vegetables, lettuce, fresh tomatoes, leafy greens, and a variety of other ingredients.
This sandwich can make an excellent snack, or a more filling meal, depending on the ingredients and the size of the sandwich. In Italy, many markets sell panini for people to grab on the go, and the sandwiches can also be custom constructed at delis and restaurants. A panino may be packed for lunch, split on a date, or eaten as an afternoon snack. Panini are associated with casual dining and youth culture in many regions of Italy, and the same holds true in many communities outside of Italy as well.