I’m walking on the uneven, dark brown cobblestone streets of Florence and meander into Pino’s Panini Shop. All of the essential cibo Italiano is housed behind a glass case that stands about chest high. Watery mozzarella runs from inside white containers as Parma ham sits on an old oak cutting board waiting to be sliced. I order a panino called “Springtime,” which features fresh prosciutto, mozzarella, pesto, and tomatoes. As I sit in the back room, surrounded by wine bottles housed perfectly in the diamond shape holes on the wall, I take a bite into my meal. The square slab of focaccia slices the roof my mouth, but I’m too consumed by the fresh, crunchy spinach and crisp tomatoes. Everything from the prosciutto to the pesto oozes freshness.
When I open my eyes after reminiscing on i panini I once took for granted in Italy, I find myself walking into Rossi’s. The sandwich shop claiming to serve panini Italiani is not unlike Pino’s, except now I’m in Poughkeepsie, New York not Florence, Italy. Marist students, alum, and Poughkeepsie locals crowd around the entryway. They attentively wait and listen for an older woman with a New Jersey accent from behind the counter to call out their order number.
My group of friends and I slink past the people with anxious looks on their faces and saliva almost drooling down their chins. We wait in line behind about seven other customers, in what feels like a hallway flanked with food. On one side, freezers are filled with frozen pasta and sauce. On the other, a glass case lined with metal buckets of peppers, cheeses, and pasta salads gives me déjà vu to Pino’s. When we approach the front of the line, a wooden board, about the size of a piece of poster board lists the options. The list is seemingly short, but the options are truly endless. Any combination of classic Italian panino options is available. Customers can mix and match to craft their ideal panino. Meats include prosciutto, roast turkey, and breaded chicken cutlets. You can also pick any slew of toppings to go with the base including, but not limited to, olives, pesto, arugula, and peppers.
I opt for a large roast turkey on focaccia with herb mayo, spinach, and mozzarella. When I finally get my sandwich, from the outside I was feeling the Florentine vibes. It weighs about 3 pounds, is 2 inches thick, and is about the size of a Frisbee. The Focaccia was golden brown with parallel, orange toned grill marks.
As I took my first bite, what I thought could match the magic of an Italian panino quickly faded away. I first noticed the stark difference between the mozzarella. In Italy, the mozzarella drips out from between the two halves of the sandwich, often leaving unnecessary grease stains on your shirt. At Rossi’s the cheese was perfectly circular and chewy at best.
I take another bite, hoping to feel the out-of-body experience I once felt abroad. Once again, my feelings match the sentiment of the bread. The inner sogginess can only be attributed to one of two components. The under toasting of the bread that failed to compensate for the excess of moist ingredients, or the tears that rolled down my eyes as I realized the panino reality I once lived in was all but inimitable dream.
Now maybe I’m a panino snob, and while Rossi’s may not be Florence between two slices of perfectly toasted focaccia, it wasn’t all sad and soggy like an Italian spring. The herb mayo was sweet, like the taste of a pasta salad your mom serves as a side to the final summer meal. It had punchy hints of salt and pepper that persisted much longer than the rest of the panino components.
I next notice the turkey. It was fresh, moist and far better than any variation of deli meat. Thick and juicy, the taste parallels the years that the Thanksgiving Day turkey came out of the oven at the perfect time. Not dry or undercooked, it balanced out the plastic taste of the cheese and complemented the fresh structure of the mayo.
When I take a moment to look down at my wannabe panino I notice the stark difference in color from what I had come to know. Monochromatic pink hues are only interrupted by a single vibrant streak of green spinach. I close my eyes and am back at Pino’s where my panino is a rainbow of fresh ingredients. The shades of prosciutto fade from crimson to terra cotta as the spinach wraps itself around the meat as delicately as Italian woman flick the tail end of their scarves around their necks. The Italian experience is only improved by the pesto, which tops off the Picasso of a panino.
A panino from Rossi’s feels haphazardly authentic at best. A mash-up of ingredients sits sky-high on your plate, an indelicate nod to quantity over quality. The ability to hear Italian rolling off the plate and smell the amore that went into crafting the crispy masterpiece trumps any sandwich that’s biggest boast is that it’s the size of your dogs favorite yard toy. If you’re looking for a real panino, by the plane ticket to Italy and never look back.
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