The humble panino has won a great many fans here in Britain over the past decade. Stroll into any branch of Caffè Nero or Costa Coffee and a happy platoon of paninis will gaze back at you from beneath that little refrigerated section which flanks the queue, forcing you to choose between ‘sausage and mozzarella’ and re-mortgaging your property in return for a slice of carrot cake by the till.
Unfortunately, and despite steep prices, none of these paninis has ever been up to much – essentially a toasted sandwich made with mozzarella rather than standard cheddar, the bread is chewy, the ingredients greasy and the cheese invariably forms a slimy coastline of yellow fudge around the rim. Safe to say I wasn’t Cafe Costa Nerobuck’s favourite customer.
So when I was asked to attend the opening night of Milanese sandwich-chain Panino Giusto’s first UK store, I was a little suspicious. Panino Giusto is a chain, I thought, and chain stores can’t do authentic food. For a panino to be authentic it must be crafted in some rustic millstone shack tucked away on a cobblestone corner of a Tuscan village smelling strongly of olive oil and Vespa fumes, perhaps with Super Mario and Don Vito playing cards in the background to the tune of a wistful accordion.
Panino Giusto swiftly ends this daydream: there no kitschy reminders of its birthplace – no tacky tourist tablemats or black-and-white photos of Al Pacino, replaced by a sharp and functional décor bound to delight the city boys working around the corner – only superb paninis.
Rather than being flat and square, Panino Giusto’s sandwiches are robust and crunchy. Forget about that burnt-cheese crust you were so tired of peeling off, forget the stodgy melange masquerading as filling. Neither are these paninis flat – they’re shapely, well-balanced and light. The prosciutto is dry-cured in Italy especially for Panino Giusto, and it shows: the meat is sliced so thin it’s almost translucent. Unlike the prosciutto you find in the supermarket, this ham is not chewy or tough. It almost melts on your tongue.
Three paninos are showcased there. The Giusto is unusual, served with mustard and a single anchovy. Mustard evokes northern Europe rather than the Italian peninsula, yet its partnership with cured ham overcomes this geographical prejudice. Meanwhile the anchovy adds a new twist, providing a salty aftertaste to the sweetness of the Praga Ham. The Garibaldino is filled with bresaola, air-dried and aged salted beef, paper-thin, served with both flat-leaf and broad-leaf rocket and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. It’s aromatic, fragrant and evocative of its birthplace.
Our final panino, the Tartufo, breaks all the rules, pairing Parma Ham with a thick slab of Brie, which is a bit like fusing Sonic the Hedgehog with Tintin. To complicate my analogy, the final flourish comes in the form of a drizzle of Alba truffle oil. But the sandwich carries these flavours heroically: I’m impressed that Panino Giusto is willing to push the boundaries by adding high-quality, unorthodox ingredients into their sandwiches. They’ve thrown in an anchovy where most wouldn’t chuck a tomato.
We’re served homemade tiramisu, which delivers that trademark wine-soaked graininess, oddly reminiscent of the Eucharist, and Il Giustino, a miniature ice-cream cone about the size of your thumb served with an espresso. We’re told to dunk our chocolate cone into the espresso, and I do so. Unsurprisingly, it takes like having an ice-cream in your coffee, but like everything about Panino Giusto there’s sound logic there somewhere. It’s pricey, it doesn’t play on its origins, but it does deliver a punchy panino.
1/3 Royal Exchange Buildings
Tel: 0207 2830 057