Leave it to Italy to elevate the humble sandwich to glorious heights. JOHN IRVING investigates the evolution and diverse region-by-region repertoire of the panino.
Leave it to Italy to take sandwiches to new heights. John Irving investigates the regional panino repertoire.
In our post-truth world, food history isn’t immune from the fake news phenomenon. Take the story of the humble sandwich, filled with mumbo jumbo, spread with phoney “facts”. According to legend – and I use the word advisedly – the bread plus filling combo was named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, in the 18th century. Apparently his valet served him meat between two slices of bread so he could eat with one hand and play cribbage with the other. ‘The same as Sandwich!’ ordered his fellow card players and the name stuck. I find the story hard to swallow.
Then there’s the Italian tramezzino, a dainty little sandwich made with two slices of white bread, crusts removed.
I’d take its history with a pinch of salt, too. In 1925, after emigrating to Detroit, Angela Nebiolo and her husband
Onorino Demichelis returned to their native Turin and used their savings to buy the pretty little rococo Caffè Mulassano on the city’s central Piazza Castello. With them they brought back an electric toaster and used it to serve punters toasted sandwiches. They then had the brainwave of not toasting the bread at all and using it just as it was. The tramezzino was born! Inside the Caffè Mulassano, there’s even a plaque to commemorate the masterstroke. “Here in 1926 Signora Angela Demichelis Nebiolo invented the tramezzino,” it says. It all seems like a roundabout way of replicating the British tea sandwich, a bit like inventing the cart before the wheel.
At a time when the order was to Italianise English words, it was Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, a founding father of Fascism, who coined the name tramezzino to replace “sandwich”. It’s the diminutive of tramezzo, “in between”, and it denoted the “new” sandwich’s function as a snack to nibble at between meals.
In modern Italian, any sandwich made with any bread – be it a roll or a bun or ready-sliced from the supermarket – is a panino, in turn the diminutive of pane, bread. There’s also an older word, “companatico”, from the medieval Latin “companaticum”, “that which one eats with bread”. The question is, when did human beings start eating companatico between slices of pane as opposed to with it? Around the Italian regions there are proto-panini that evoke a remoter, pre-Earl of Sandwich past.
The pitta ripiena of Calabria is what it says on the label – “filled pitta bread” – and is likely a throwback to the Middle Ages, when the region was frequently raided and briefly occupied by the Saracens. It’s run through the middle by a squelchy seam of soppressata, pecorino and hard-boiled eggs. The Saracens would have frowned on the soppressata, salamilike ground pork, whose presence also belies another myth. Namely that Italians adhere to a healthy Mediterranean diet, all cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, fresh fish and fruit and vegetables.
Salubrious panino-like concoctions do exist: pizza con i tanni, for instance, typical of the Ciociaria district of Lazio – two discs of focaccia filled with broccoli rabe, garlic and peperoncino; or pani cun tamatica, typical of Sardinia – leftover bread dough stuffed with fresh tomato and baked in the oven; or the Sicilian pani cunzato, a long bread roll stuffed with tomato, sardines, and grated pecorino.
But, save for a few virtuous pockets, mostly along the coast or on the islands,
the Italian diet is heavy on pork fat and offal and, in the north, butter and lard. This applies to the panino panorama, too.
On a recent visit to Trieste, I came across the panino con la porzina, a bread roll filled with boiled shoulder pork, mustard and sauerkraut, a specialty of the city’s buffets, nose-to-tail pork trattorias, and a testimony to its Habsburg past. It’s not recommended for the cholesterol-conscious but it’s irresistibly, unctuously delicious.
In Florence, the trippai, or tripe sellers, have been plying their trade since the
16th century, when tripe was a cheap and nutritious alternative to starvation. At their stalls and kiosks, they cook and sell all manner of cuts. Some of the stuff goes into panini, the connoisseurs’ favourite being the one with lampredotto, or abomasum. For readers not au fait with the esoteric world of tripe, the abomasum, reed tripe in butchers’ parlance, is the fourth stomach of any ruminant, the place where it digests its food. For the panino, the lampredotto is boiled with vegetables, anointed with olive oil, seasoned with black pepper and ladled into rolls called semelle. The gently chewy texture of the frilly tripe contrasts with the softness of the bread. Heaven for offal lovers, with the proviso that a little goes a long way.
Then there’s pani ca’ meusa, which consists of a bread roll, or muffoletta, cut in half and filled with slices of boiled calf’s lungs and spleen turned in lard.
It’s a street classic of Palermo – a distinctly un-Mediterranean snack in a very Mediterranean city. There are two versions: schiettu, “single”, with a squirt of lemon juice, and maritatu, “married”, with slivers of caciocavallo cheese. A friend of mine, a food and wine writer and an old Sicily hand, reckons pani ca’ meusa have a whiff of drains, though the Palermitani seem happy enough to queue up to buy them. It’s true that the grey innards and entrails bubbling away in the vendors’ cauldrons are not a sight for the squeamish, but once the pani are served – greasy on greaseproof paper – I find them palatable enough. Let’s say they’re an acquired taste, a test of character.
In Naples, mozzarella in carrozza, “mozzarella in a carriage”, consists of a slice of mozzarella pressed between two slices of white bread, crusts removed, dipped in beaten egg yolk and deep-fried. It leapt to world fame in 1948, when it guest-starred in Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist movie Bicycle Thieves. In one famous scene, to ease the prevailing air of misery, the man whose bicycle has been stolen treats his young son to a meal in a restaurant. He orders mozzarella in carrozza as if it were a special treat, and the boy takes obvious delight at tugging at the strings of sizzling, melting mozzarella with his teeth. But those were the post-war years of poverty and hardship and today mozzarella in carrozza is just another item in the seemingly endless Neapolitan street-food repertoire, available not only in the city itself but also in eateries up and down the peninsula.
Since the war, affluence and modernity have spawned more sophisticated inventions. From 1977 until last year, when he wasn’t travelling the country expounding his theories, self-styled maestro paninaro Giancarlo Rubaldi of the Bar Schiavoni in Modena turned the panino into an art form, elaborating concepts such as harmony of fillings, quality and traceability of ingredients and balance of flavour. Michelin-starred chefs are in on the act, too. In 2013, Davide Scabin of the Michelin-starred Combal.Zero restaurant in Rivoli Castle near Turin designed the McCombal Burger, a soft sesame-seed roll laden with tofu burger, tomato, onion, cucumber, lettuce, wasabi mayo and potatoes as a playful riposte to ongoing McDonaldisation.
The fact is that the forces of plenty, in the form of the standardised offerings of McDonald’s and the paninoteche, sandwich bars, that are springing up everywhere, appeal more to the young generation than the more gruesome contrivances, now an endangered species, of a hungry past. But as panini continue to evolve, there’s no escaping the innate truth of the old Victoria Wood gag: “Sandwich recipe: take two bits of bread. Put them together, now eat it.”
Mozzarella in carrozza
Panino con la porzina
Pani ca’ meusa
Panino al lampredotto