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Smoky Chicken Nestled in Flaky Phyllo Dough Makes for an Unforgettable Panini

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A Brooklyn pizzeria uses burek dough for a sandwich where grilled chicken and sweet sesame seeds combine

Round sandwich with grilled chicken and mozzarella on a sesame seeded roll...
La Bella calls it a grilled chicken panini

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.

As a sideline, neighborhood pizzerias across the city also serve hero sandwiches using demi-baguettes usually acquired from nearby Italian bakeries. These sandwiches are either cold or hot, with the former assembled from a limited repertoire of cold cuts and cheeses. The hot heroes are better adapted to pizzerias, with the stacked ovens being deployed in a variety of ways, from crisping the bread, to melting cheese over meatballs or fried cutlets.

But a handful of pizzerias decide to go their own way, bread-wise, saving themselves the cost and trouble of buying bakery bread, which is susceptible to growing moldy or too stale to use, even for a hot hero. I imagine that some neighborhood pizza maker got the bright idea one day that he or she could make bread using pizza dough. Indeed, before the dawn of the pizza era around 115 years ago, the reverse was true and bakeries made the pizzas, which were more like focaccia than flat Neapolitan pizzas.

Exterior of La Bella pizzeria...
La Bella in Bensonhurst, since 1957
Pizzeria interior with a glass case in the foreground and a pizza guy working in the background...
As you can see in the foreground, La Bella also sells bureks.

The pizza makers soon discovered that you couldn’t make much of a baguette with pizza dough, but you could make all sorts of round breads, flatbreads, and stuffed breads in a stromboli vein, some of which came to be called hippie rolls and pinwheels. The possibilities were endless. But there was still the question of making sandwiches that could compete with the corner deli for those customers who didn’t want two slices of pizza every day for lunch.

I’ve been to a pizzeria in Woodside (and another in Pittsburgh) where cold slices of pizza were used to make wedge-shaped sandwiches, but a recent visit to Bensonhurst turned up a place that had free-styled with dough to make a sandwich roll, the like of which I’ve never seen before. La Bella Pizza — which uses a picture of a dark-haired woman standing next to the Mona Lisa at the top of its menu — was founded in 1957, at the dawn of the neighborhood pizza era. The restaurant also sells bureks, the flaky and round Balkan pie, as is common for many pizzerias in New York.

At La Bella, the roll is round, with a swirl on top, and crusty, and quite obviously made from same multilayer dough used in a burek, something like Greek phyllo or Moroccan warka. On top are a scatter of sesame seeds. The sandwich made from this roll contains grilled chicken, mozzarella, lettuce, and tomato, assembled from cold ingredients. But once thrust into the ovens, the ingredients meld perfectly, with the smoky taste of grilled chicken front and center, and the sesame a close second. It’s a grilled chicken panini ($5) you can’t forget. 8509 20th Ave, between 85th and 86th streets, Bensonhurst

The same round sandwich as the first photo, only splayed open instead of cut in half and stacked...

La Bella Pizza

8509 20th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11214