The Rise and Fall of the Panini

Why the iconic pressed sandwich deserves a comeback.

A panini from Sanpanino | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
A panini from Sanpanino | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

There was a time, in the early aughts, when the panini reigned supreme. Panera Bread had its hold on us all, and the best way to execute a “You Pick Two” was with a pressed half-sandwich. It was the era of Urth Caffé in Los Angeles, whose organic, melty creations came with a side of celeb-spotting. And in New York, the panini was made popular by legendary shops like Il Bambino, as well as corner bodegas that were selling their own pita bread versions.

It was during the height of quarantine that I became reminded of the panini. Frustrated by the lack of options for a work-from-home lunch, I poked into my parents’ cabinet of non-essential cookware and dusted off the Breville panini press that I begged my mom to get at Bed Bath & Beyond, when such appliances were all the rage. It was practically vintage—the Y2K air fryer.

In between two slices of sourdough bread, I put together a classic combo of fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and pesto. The griddle lines were nostalgic. The cheese pull was sensational. I thought to myself, “Why did we ever let go of this?”

In the U.S., we use the word “panini” to refer to a single, pressed sandwich, but in Italy, “panini” is the plural form of “panino.” Although the earliest mention of panini appears in a 16th-century Italian cookbook, the sandwich became trendy in 1970s Milan, when office workers, looking for a quick lunch, flocked to the paninoteca, or sandwich bar.

The Italian word “panino” translates to “bread roll,” or “sandwich,” in Italian. But as the word trickled its way down to English-speaking countries, it has come to signify a grilled sandwich. “There’s a whole misconception of people thinking paninis have to use a specific bread, when really, panini just means ‘pressed sandwich,’” says Sabino Curcio, owner of Anthony & Son Panini Shoppe in Brooklyn. “In Italy, a panini is two euros, and there are about two slices of prosciutto in it. So when I have friends from Italy come to the shop, they’ll say ‘What you guys put in one sandwich, we could put in six.’”

The panini movement arrived in America in the late ‘90s—particularly in New York City. “It’s a sophisticated sandwich, in essence. But I think New York made it sophisticated,” says Darren Lawless, chef and owner of Il Bambino.

Lawless, who opened Il Bambino’s Astoria location in 2006, recalls a time when top-tier panini was really stepping onto the scene, at now-shuttered spots like Jason Denton’s 'Ino. “It was a little wine bar in the West Village that sat about 10 or 11 people. A lot of us chefs went there at night because the panini were amazing,” he says, also citing Bar Veloce as a long-time purveyor of good quality, late-night panini.

Leonardo Scarpone of NYC’s Sanpanino references the same heyday. “When we first opened, it was 2000, and there was a bit of a panini craze. Even a common deli would get the grill and press the sandwiches,” he says.

A panini from Sanpanino | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

And then there were the chains. Pret-a-Manger, Starbucks, and Corner Bakery—the tried-and-true lunch spots for hard-working college kids and young, urban professionals—have each, at some point in time, served their rendition of the pressed sandwich. But the name most synonymous with fast-casual panini was Panera Bread.

The Frontega Chicken Panini—a delightful marriage of smoked chicken, vine-ripened tomatoes, and chipotle sauce—was something I looked forward to whenever I took a trip to the mall. I remember this menu item, precisely because I was an anxious teen, and I’d rehearse the name in my head before stepping up to the cashier. But I’ve recently been shocked to discover that my beloved panini is now called a Toasted Frontega Chicken Sandwich. When I reached out to Panera Bread, asking to talk panini, they declined to comment.

It seems as though Panera has rebranded all of its signature paninis as “toasted sandwiches,” without ever formally announcing the change. According to Mashed, when one Reddit user questioned why his usual Bacon Egg & Cheese on Ciabatta was no longer getting placed on the panini press, a few Panera insiders commented that the chain had transitioned to a Turbochef oven, which favors baked sandwiches over pressed ones. Additionally, paninis like the Tomato Mozzarella and Coronado Carnitas have been silently discontinued.

Subway caught onto the wave of peak panini in 2004, when it began offering toasted subs. “Toasted subs quickly went from a consideration to an overwhelming fan favorite, and today, the majority of the subs sold are toasted,” says a Subway spokesperson. But even still, the shop steered clear of the word “panini,” calling its new, extra-cheesy sandwiches—which replace the toasted roll with crunchy, grilled bread—“Fresh Melts.”

Maybe words are just words. But this marketing shift might have something to do with the sandwich’s downfall. Somewhere, somehow, the thought of a panini began to feel passé—the kind of thing you might settle for at an airport, or a restaurant that specializes in cobb salads.

“I think it got a bad rap because it wasn’t a cheap sandwich to begin with. It was all about quality first. But a lot of people looked at it and were like, ‘Okay, anybody can do this.’ Delis just kind of took the name ‘panini’ and applied it to two pieces of pita bread, or two quesadillas, stuck together with a filling,” says Lawless. “Everywhere you looked, every place that you walked into, somebody was doing their version of a panini, and 99% of the time, it wasn’t correct.”

Scarpone adds, “I don't think panini has waned, but maybe the term has just gotten a little generic. So many places were using the term ‘panini’ and it was probably not as fancy-sounding anymore.”

If the panini is no longer having a moment, it must mean that another sandwich is taking its place, and Scarpone suspects that sandwich shops are harkening back to more traditional roots. “I think there are other sandwich shops opening that have gone the way of Italian heroes,” he says. “And a lot of them don’t have a cooking facility, so the sandwiches are cold-cut-based. I think it’s just easier to make those colder sandwiches. It’s a time-saver thing”

“Everywhere you looked, every place that you walked into, somebody was doing their version of a panini, and 99% of the time, it wasn’t correct.”

A few of these newly opened, old-school-with-a-modern-twist delis—which specialize in Italian subs, loaded with cold cuts—include Ggiata in LA and Cutlets in NYC. There’s something charmingly vintage about their sandwiches. Maybe it has to do with the Sopranos resurgence. Or they just photograph well. Instagram loves the wow factor, and a shot of a thick sandwich, splitting open and giving way to layers of color, does just that.

“I think there is a sort of a mouth-watering effect,” Scarpone explains. “We’ve tried to stray from loading our sandwiches that way, because something like prosciutto should stand by itself. I’m not into packing sandwiches with so many different meats, because it’s just not done that way in Europe. And it’s nice to just have speck with fontina and some arugula and not complicate it. But would that picture look as good as a loaded sandwich? Maybe not.”

But while monstrous sandwiches might be trending right now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the panini is gone forever. Instead, it’s re-inventing itself. Both Scarpone and Curcio run hybrid shops. A fusion between New York’s Italian salumerias and Italian paninotecas, Sanpanino gives customers the liberty of deciding whether or not to toast. And Scarpone is very honest about when it’s appropriate to do so. A prosciutto sandwich, for example, is better served cold, but it would be a crime not to heat up the grilled eggplant.

Anthony & Son, which sells both heroes and paninis, makes the two options almost indistinguishable. The panini is not your typical, griddle-lined, flat sandwich. It’s toasted, yes, but it’s also heavy on the meat. When it comes to deciphering which options are ordered more frequently, both Scarpone and Curcio draw the line at 50/50.

Il Bambino has ventured beyond the Mediterranean flavors that paninis are often associated with. The shop’s best-selling El Porko Royale, for example, is Asian-inspired, with ginger-braised pork that sits in the oven for seven hours.

And not all chains have done away with the panini. Though Wawa mysteriously took the panini off the menu a few years ago, it recently brought it back as a rotational sandwich in January 2021. “In fact, due to its popularity, a fun fact to share is that we need over five truckloads of Panini Bread per week just to keep up with the demand!,” says Wawa’s external public relations supervisor Jennifer Wolf.

I, for one, will never quit the panini—there’s nothing quite like the crunchy bread, the melded flavors, and the gooey cheese. But perhaps it is more of a novelty now. “There’s still a few of us out there that still take a lot of pride in the panini and do it very well,” says Lawless. But like fashion trends, food trends are cyclical—and I can’t wait for the panini to reign supreme on the sandwich board again.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram