sandwich • wine • bar


sandwich • wine • bar

BAYSIDE: 718.281.1950
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Mega Drop Down Menu Press 195 Restaurant GRUB STREET NEW YORK



July 7, 2002 - View actual article by clicking here


ONE of the wonders of cooking is that the tiniest adjustment to what you are making, the addition of a single ingredient or the execution of a technique, can entirely change a dish and the visceral response you get from eating it.


Think for an instant about a ham and cheese sandwich, a fancy ham and cheese, with prosciutto and a slice of Asiago slipped between slices of good country bread, sprinkled with olive oil. You could eat it and be splendidly pleased.


But if you warmed up your waffle maker -- or newly purchased sandwich press -- and put the sandwich inside, you would have something altogether different. The prosciutto would heat, the cheese would melt, and both would be compacted between slices of toasted bread, so that when you bit into the sandwich, it would be coarse and supple, intense and generous.


It may seem like a small change, but it distinguishes a sandwich that has become known as a panino (panini when plural), named after the Italian word for sandwich, which is sometimes, but not always, pressed.


Pressed sandwiches have surfaced on the menus of Manhattan restaurants like Craftbar and Loggia, and are at the heart of cafes like 'ino in Greenwich Village, and, in Brooklyn, Press 195 and Panino'teca 275. At Thatbar on Smith Street in Brooklyn, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is made into a panino, and even sandwiches at Sony Lincoln Square, the movie theater, now are pressed and toasted.


A little heat and pressure have a way of elevating a sandwich above its station, and panini are really no more difficult to make than a regular sandwich.


At home, you can serve the sandwiches as hors d'oeuvres. Call them panini, and no one will dare complain. Your panini creations may also have nothing to do with the original panini you find in Italy. But then, culinary faithfulness didn't stop anyone with meatballs or pizza.


In case you are tested by a nervy guest, a panino is technically nothing more than a roll, and when it is being referred to as a preparation, it means simply a sandwich, not necessarily a toasted one.


''It's bar food,'' said Arthur Schwartz, the radio show host and author of ''Naples at Table'' (HarperCollins, 1998). ''It's something that when you go into the bar in the afternoon to have a coffee or a drink as a refreshment you grab as a snack.''


Like all things in Italy, panini vary from region to region. In Bologna, they might come on rosettes; in Rome, on focaccia. You might be asked if you want them toasted, or they might be served without choice.


''Here, of course, people eat it as a meal,'' Mr. Schwartz said. ''I guess they feel compelled to put more in it, because they're charging more, so it's become an American sandwich on Italian bread. Oh, I don't want to be curmudgeonly about it. I like them.''


Jason Denton, an owner of 'ino, which makes perhaps the best, and leanest, pressed sandwiches in the city, prefers the skimpy Italian version. ''As far as they go, less is more,'' he said. ''The more you put into it the less you're going to taste distinctively.''


This, I found, is true. A single basil leaf or a slice of Black Forest ham goes a long way. Forget the heros and grinders of your youth. The panino is a grown-up sandwich with slim portions and dense flavor.


It is as much an integrated creation as it is a showcase of your favorite flavors. With that in mind, I headed to the grocery store for fresh marjoram, sheep's milk ricotta, San Daniele prosciutto, figs, basil, tomatoes and onions.


At home, I pulled my waffle iron from the closet. The iron has a variety of plates that you can clip into it, one of which has long shallow ridges. This proved to be the perfect cooking surface. The pattern is impressed into the bread without turning it into a waffle. The waffle iron itself, however, was flimsy, so to press the sandwich properly, particularly with sturdier breads, I placed an iron pan on top as it cooked. This worked just fine. (The goal is to compact the ingredients without flattening the sandwich.)


Although the flavor of the bread is secondary to the flavor of the filling, it is the backbone of a panino. As such, it must have the proper texture and thickness. Many restaurant panini are made with ciabatta or a springy, strong sandwich bread. 'Ino, for instance, has Blue Ribbon Bakery make a ciabatta roll for it that is slightly undercooked. The bread is moister inside so that once toasted, it is not too dry or crunchy. The restaurant also cuts the top crust off, so there is a chewy bottom crust and a moist, delicate top.


Special-ordering bread seemed a little excessive. For sweet panini, I bought brioche rolls. I was able to find ciabatta rolls as well as a dense, moist sandwich bread, sliced thickly. I cut the ciabatta in half and pulled out some of the center so that there would not be too much bread, as compared with the filling. This is something to experiment with. You want to be sure not to compensate for the bread with more filling. Then you would have a hero, not a panino.


Fillings are an open field, but should be limited to four flavors. At least one of them should be a meat or a cheese, for richness and flavor. You cannot go wrong with ham -- smoked ham, cured ham, ham rolled in rosemary and thyme -- but firm pates and sliced chicken can also be good. Craftbar has become known for its duck ham and hen-of-the-woods mushroom panino. (I couldn't find duck ham, but I did spot some duck pate and made a panino of it, with freshly grated ginger.)


With cheeses, there are almost no parameters. You can use very fresh ones like ricottas or goat cheeses, or aged provolone or cheddar.


Ingredients like onions and tomato work as they do in any other sandwich, as subtle notes of flavor. What you don't want to do, though, is pile them on as you would for a regular sandwich. You should only add tomato, for instance, for moisture or sweetness. In a panino with Black Forest ham and a lemon mayonnaise, I added sliced tomato and lots of lemon to the mayonnaise to tone down the smokiness of the ham.


With prosciutto and a fresh creamy ricotta, I added a sprig of marjoram. As it cooked, the ricotta seeped out a little on the sides, but created a warm, creamy pocket in the middle. The marjoram flavored the cheese so that in some bites you tasted the herb, in some you didn't. This is fine, even desirable. A panino should not be uniform.


For just a few panini, I did some prep work in advance, caramelizing thick slabs of Spanish onion and sautéing mixed mushrooms. I put a little of each on the ciabatta and paired them first with Asiago, then mozzarella. (I preferred the mozzarella.) I could also have swapped the cheese for something like serrano ham.


Once a sandwich is assembled (the filling, by the way, should be thin enough that the halves of bread still almost touch), it helps to press down on it with your palm, compacting it and breaking any stiff parts of the crust, so it doesn't slide apart on the grill.


It is tempting to add some kind of fat -- oil or butter -- to the waffle iron or sandwich maker, but this is a mistake. My first version, of prosciutto, sheep's milk ricotta and marjoram with olive oil on the iron, turned out like a grease bomb. Simply put the sandwich on the press and toast it. Because there are often oils or fats in the filling, they steam and naturally moisten the bread as it heats.


It will take four or five minutes to toast a sandwich. You will begin to smell it when it's ready. And it will be very difficult not to dig right in as soon as it's ready. Resist it if you can. The interior is often like lava.


Sweet panini are a touch cute. But the results, cute or not, were delicious. I sliced figs thickly and laid them out on sandwich bread. I heated orange-blossom honey and added freshly grated ginger, drizzling it over the figs. On the other half, I spread a thick layer of goat cheese. The honey and juices from the figs bled into the cheese in a wonderful way.


The last one I tried was, admittedly, ridiculous. Try it and see. I split a round brioche roll, covering one half with dulce de leche, the other with fresh goat cheese. I pressed the halves together lightly, placed it on the grill, and shared it with no one.

Press 195
4011 Bell Blvd. 22 North Park Ave. Sun-Wed: 11:30am -9:45pm
Queens, NY 11361  Rockville Centre, NY 11570  Thur-Sat: 11:30am -10:45pm 
718.281.1950  516.536.1950  Happy Hour: Mon - Fri  4pm-7pm
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