A Pressing Matter

Panini grills give the trendy hot sandwich its crisp textural appeal.

Crisp and hot on the outside; gooey and melty inside. That contrast of textures makes panini the trendy sandwiches of the day; it also makes the panini grill, or press, a must-have item for restaurants that serve panini.

The presses work by heating the entire sandwich between two hot plates. The grills work quickly, with the average panini (meat and cheese between slices of rustic bread) cooking in three to five minutes. The plates’ weight and heat help crisp the bread without the addition of extra fat and work to melt what’s meltable in the sandwich. Some panini presses have grooves, which give sandwiches the extra visual appeal of hash marks.

Why use the word ‘panini’ and not just ‘grilled’? Patrick Heymann, executive chef at Loews Coronado Bay Resort in San Diego has the answer. ‘Panini sounds great – warm and delicious,’ he says. Customers are willing to pay for the romance: Calling a sandwich ‘panini,’ Heymann says, ‘adds a dollar or two to a cold club sandwich.’

Indeed, the Grilled Vegetable Panini ($14) that Heymann menus in warmer months is the resort’s best-selling vegetarian dish, he says.

A Sandwich Show

For conventions, Loews Coronado Bay offers a panini bar, which showcases a chef grilling panini to order. In October, the resort served a group of National Restaurant Association executives Elvis Panini: sliced bananas, peanut butter and honey on soft white bread. The group, Heymann says, was impressed by the sandwiches and the show involved in making them.

‘You get a lot of steam, you hear the sizzling, you smell it cooking,’ he says. Plus, the resort’s $700 panini grill, the top of which rises (rather than hinging open like a clamshell), is attractively clad in stainless steel.

Sandwich pressing also is a public event at Chloe’s Corner, a 65-seat casual restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz. The restaurant has three panini grills for a sandwich-centric menu that features three takes on the American-style panini: grilled cheese.

The sandwiches, among them Classic Grilled Cheese ($4.75) and Grilled Ham and Cheddar ($7.75), are so popular that the restaurant soon will add a fourth panini grill, says Mike Geavaras, vice president of operations for Fox Restaurant Concepts, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based multiconcept operator that owns Chloe’s. Two-unit Sauce Pizza & Wine, another Fox concept, also offers panini (shown at l.) on its menu.

In Chloe’s open kitchen, the panini grills are adjacent to the pizza oven and are in full view of the dining room. That placement offers customers a dual sensory treat: the sight of steam curling up from the grill as sandwiches cook and the smell of the bread baking. ‘We parbake the bread, so when you put the sandwich in the grill, it cooks the rest of the way,’ Geavaras explains. ‘You end up with a product that’s fresh-baked.’

Panini Press Primer

Lisa Bertagnoli

Not sure what the excitement is about? Here’s a quick introduction to this popular piece of equipment:

  • Looks like: A clamshell griddle or a waffle iron; some presses are hinged, as with clamshells, while others have a top plate that rises so that it is parallel to the bottom plate
  • Cooks with: Two cast-iron plates, grooved or flat, sometimes coated with a nonstick substance
  • Cooking time: Two to five minutes per sandwich
  • Specs: Electric, usually 110-volt; available in single and double models
  • Price range: About $700 to $1,500
  • Care and maintenance: Daily cleaning with a brush to remove carbon and food particles
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