One thing I need to make clear right off the bat is that panini is a plural noun.
The word panino [pah-KNEE-noh] is Italian for “small bread roll,” it’s a diminutive of the word pane, for bread, and it means “sandwich.” The plural form of panino is panini. Abroad, and outside of Italy, panini is for some reason often misused as a singular noun (much like salami, which also happens to be the plural of salame). One panino, two (or more) panini. What most non-Italians know as panini is one single pressed and toasted sandwich made with sourdough or ciabatta-style bread, and varied fillings.
What many don’t know however is the vast multitude of Italian panino options. Think of how many different breads, cured meats and cheeses are produced in Italy; now calculate the many regional variations of all these. It’s easy to imagine the infinite number of panino combinations, with many sauces, pickled vegetables, and other accoutrements that can go into each panino. See what I did there? I’m using the correct grammar for panino. One panino, two panini.
Listing typical Italian panini is consequently arduous. Let’s take a look at a few representative highlights of Italy’s best loved panini.
Panino al Prosciutto
Rosette are light crusty bread rolls shaped like a flower, and they’re typical of Milan. Hollow and crumb-less, these are the perfect vessel for thin, silken slices of prosciutto. Adding fresh and milky mozzarella is an option, but panino al prosciutto lets the cured pork meat shine as protagonist.
The rolls used for this panino are round and flat (like a medallion). The filling is ham and cheese, the roll is buttered on the inside, and then smashed onto the grill.
Pane e salame
Ciabatta, sourdough, rustico multigrain bread or rosette are the common breads used with salami. Some like to break up the flavor of the salami with some carciofini oil-packed artichokes pressed into the filling of this simple sandwich.
Panino allo speck
Typical of South Tyrol, speck is a dry-cured, lightly smoked ham. Sandwiches that use speck in their filling should keep the bread relatively simple, such as a rye or a multigrain loaf. Alpine cheese is often added in the filling, but like many other Italian panini, less is more.
The classic filling of Piadina Romagnola – a flatbread made with flour and lard that’s typical of Romagna – is Parma ham, arugula (or any other bitter green, raw or cooked) and sqacquerone cheese (a soft fresh cow’s milk spreadable cheese).
Pane e Panelle
Native to Palermo, and rarely found outside of the city, pane e panelle is a classic snack or antipasto. Dome-shaped sesame rolls that are locally called vastedda or vastella are filled with warm chickpea fritters and dusted with cheese if desired. Once you try pane e panelle, you will never be the same person again.
Panino con la Porchetta
Porchetta is an Ariccia (Rome) specialty. The suckling pig is de-boned, seasoned with garlic and herbs, and then slowly roasted wrapped in its own crackling skin. Porchetta is typically sliced and served as a filling for ciabatta sandwiches.
Pizza e mortadella
This delicacy, that’s known in the Eternal City as “pizza e mortazza”, is quintessential Roman snack food. The flatbread dough, that’s seasoned with only olive oil and salt, is sliced open and stuffed with gossamer slices of pink mortadella. This is what kids pack in their school bags for midday snack, and what adults tuck in to when feeling hungry and passing by a local baker/deli. In summer, mortadella is swapped with prosciutto and fresh whole figs for the delightful Pizza, prosciutto e fichi.
Panino con la frittata
When there’s a wedge of frittata left over in the fridge, the worthy end of this sensational dish is stuffing it into a sandwich, along with maybe a lettuce leaf, if anything. Delightful.
Panino col Lampredotto
Florence and Tuscany in general compete with Rome in regards to which city boasts the most offal-based dishes. The bread used for panino col lampredotto (boiled bovine stomach) is soaked in the tasty broth and slathered with salsa verde. These sandwiches are sold all over Florence in kiosks called “trippai”.
Pane, pomodoro e lardo
In the Alpine village of Colonnata (in Tuscany) marble quarry men worked long hours away from home to carve huge slabs of white gold, the same raw material Michelangelo used to scupt his Pietà and his Moses. The snack of choice for the men working such dangerous and exhausting shifts in the quarries needed to be packed with protein, fat and flavor. The typical panino of the marble workers was therefore two slices of saltless sourdough bread filled with fresh tomato slices, and thin strips of lardo. Lardo is not renedered lard (which is locally called strutto, or sugna), rather cured fatback. Habit-forming.
Pani ca’ meusa
Another popular Sicilian sandwich from Palermo is pani ca’ meusa, or bread with spleen. The soft bread roll is stuffed with chopped boiled and then fried veal’s lung and spleen. Fried in lard, that is! Caciocavallo or ricotta cheese may also be added, in which case the pani ca’ meusa is called maritatu (“married”). When served without cheese, it is considered schettu (“single”). Local meusari sell these flavor bombs in Palermo’s main markets: the Vucciria and the Ballarò.
What’s your favorite Italian panino?
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.