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.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - OCT - Il­lus­tra­tions DAWN TAN

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.”

Pitta rip­i­ena

Moz­zarella in car­rozza

Panino con la porz­ina

Pani ca’ meusa

Panino al lam­pre­dotto


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