This delicious Italian sandwich is kind of a big deal.

If you've been ordering Italian food lately, you may have seen a panino section on the menu. But what, exactly, is a panino? This amazing sandwich is an Italian staple that has been gaining recent popularity in the United States. A classic saying (that we just made up) states, "Everyone lives two lives. The life before they try a good panino, and the life they live after." 

They're just that good.

What Is a Panino?

On a surface level, a panino is a sandwich in roughly the same way that a Ferrari is "just a car". Yes, it is structurally a sandwich, but eating one in public is sure to attract the attention and admiration of everyone nearby, as well as trigger a deep reflection about the choices that led them to this moment; a moment in which they are not actively eating a panino. 

The difference between a panino and a regular sandwich isn't just a difference in ingredients, but a difference in methodology—in philosophy. Instead of simply heaping on stacks of cold cut meat, a good panino uses smaller portions and a limited pool of ingredients to create a refined and flavorful experience. Don't believe us? Just look at one:

Courtesy of Panino Republica

It's All in the Bread

Walk up to any random panino enthusiast and ask them what the most important part of one is. Their first response will probably be some variation of, "Who are you? Why are you asking me this?" Their second answer will be, "The bread."

Authentic panino sandwiches use focaccia or ciabatta bread. While the two Italian types of bread may look similar, they have some differences that make for vastly different textures. Both have a rather flat appearance and are prepared with a generous amount of olive oil. Focaccia uses a high-gluten flour for a spongy texture that's reminiscent of pizza dough. Ciabatta, on the other hand, uses a rich wheat flour for a denser and crunchier texture. 

Which bread is typically an afterthought in many American schools of sandwichery, panino enthusiasts insist that it's a core component for the dish.

What's Inside One?

As noted above, most panino sandwiches use an intentionally limited quantity and variety of ingredients. Prosciutto, a fancy type of cured Italian pork, is a common player in these sandwiches. It's salty, savory, and occasionally expensive texture plays well with other common ingredient combinations such as:

  • Mozzarella and tomato (often with arugula)
  • Salsa Rosa, a pink sauce made of mayonnaise, ketchup, and whiskey
  • Olive tapenade
  • Goat cheese
  • Creamy spinach and hardboiled eggs

If those ingredients sound like an absolutely savory dream, it's because they are.

Panino vs. Panini

By this point, you may have caught yourself thinking, "Wait! Panino sounds a lot like a different word that I know!"

You're correct! Panini is the plural form of panino in traditional Italian, although the word has taken on its own meaning in the United States. While some paninis can be a panino, not every panino is a panini. Make sense? Or, put simply, the word panini is commonly used in the U.S. to refer to all grilled sandwiches. While it is possible to get a panino grilled, doing so is typically just done in Italian bars. Meanwhile, many paninis in restaurants contain bread and ingredients that would cause panino enthusiasts to let out a defeated, disappointed scoff. 

That's a fun bit of trivia to drop at parties. People at parties love learning about technicalities in sandwich names. 

Finding an authentic panino can be challenging in the U.S. While some restaurants like Panino Republica in Denver offer incredible, authentic dishes, they aren't likely to be on the menu of any normal sandwich store. If you can find one, they're certainly worth trying.

Do you know of any eateries with a good panino? Sound off in the comments!