It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.
This may be the Age of the Panini. Transplanted not long ago from Italy, the sandwich has landed on the menu of nearly every one of the city’s more ambitious and innovative delis, but in reconfigured form. Back in Italy, pane means bread, referring to a bread roll, and it designates the simplest of sandwiches — often just a slice of fatty porchetta on a pint-size roll, with no garnishes or dressings. The filling, which can also be a single slice of precious prosciutto or aged provolone, must be strong enough to carry the flavor as attenuated by the fluffy white bread.
Here, where we must have volume and opulence, nobody would put up with that and pay for it. So the term has often come to mean a pressed sandwich on a split focaccia with an elaborate roster of ingredients. When the sandwich is ordered, the wrangler puts it in a hot press that heats the sandwich, melts the cheese, and presses the thing into more compact form. Such is the case at punningly named Delissimo Deli just east of Central Park, where a whopping 26 panini are offered, including (and I leave the ingredients to your imagination) Reuben, BBQ chicken, California, Hawaiian, and Rome.
Some south-of-border elements have been introduced into the panini formulary. There’s a guacamole panino, for example, and a steak fajita panino. But the one that I almost leapt over the counter to get was a quesadilla panino. The noble experiment of merging the quesadilla with the panino involves a filling of shredded chicken, pico de gallo, slivers of avocado, tiny tidbits of jalapeño, and some sort of white cheese.
Offered in two triangles, which together make a square, the pair is pressed till they melt, brown, and exude steam. Yes, the flavor is mellow rather than sharp. Aimed at the mass market, this is one sandwich that won’t singe your tongue with chiles, but it’s awfully good. And the pleasure contemplating this cross cultural phenomenon multiplies the joy of the sandwich. 39 E. 60th St., between Madison and Park avenues, Midtown