Panini dream 

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From front: Prosciutto di San Daniele with burrata cheese, tomato, fresh basil and olive oil; Nicolo panini with parma cured ham, brie cheese, arugula, tomato and truffle oil; Bresaola panini with cured sliced beef, Parmesan cheese, arugula, olive oil, lemon, and pepper. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Il Panino's smart Italian sandwiches transcend their American digs

Il Panino, tucked into a corner of The Vineyards Shopping Center, is only a pizza toss away from popular Aldino's. The owners of the casual restaurant must have felt the need to distinguish themselves by offering a completely different Italian-accented menu, and they have succeeded admirably. The menu consists primarily of the namesake panini, cold plates, and salads, but nevertheless requires a paradigm shift. For starters, the panini don't conform to the popular image of a sandwich grilled in a weighted press. And though the place is open until 11 p.m. on weekends, the menu offers nothing more ambitious than sandwiches. With a little attitude adjustment, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Il Panino's lofty interior takes a leaf from Aldino's with antique mural motifs, including some Michelangelo-inspired figures, and a quirky Romeo-and-Juliet dining balcony ("only for decoration," according to a waiter). But its appetizers are totally original - if you consider the piatti freddi appetizers. For the late evening diner, a plate of prosciutto di San Daniele, burrata, pomodoro e basilico may be all one needs. Add a salad and a glass of wine from the exclusively Italian list, and sit outside, preferably in sight of the motorcycle sporting a "Panino" license plate. It's as close as we're likely to get to the Vespa culture of Rome, but if we all repeat "Piazza Navona" softly several times, maybe Il Panino's geographic and gastronomic incongruity will seem less apparent.

The prosciutto de San Daniele, deep rosy red and robustly flavored, is a revelation (and considered by many to be superior to the more widely available prosciutto di Parma). At $10.95 this is not a cheap plate of pork, but it's generous and beautiful, and the unctuous burrata (a cooked and kneaded cheese similar to mozzarella but formed around a piece of butter or burro) and formidable fresh basil make for willing accomplices in seduction with just the merest drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

The salad that might entice you as an accompaniment to the prosciutto is the capraia, a skillful blend of arugula, "viola" lettuce, smoked salmon, and goat cheese with olive oil, lemon, and pepper. It's again a very handsome plate, and the peppery arugula contrasts winningly with the salmon and goat cheese. Add balsamico if you must, but keep it light. My glass of Baroncini Morcelino di Scansano, freshly opened, was a little off, but the Piazza Navona mantra worked wonders.

If you're at Il Panino during lunch, the very particular panini will seem a natural (it's only at dinner that sandwich consumption needs to be re-imagined) once you get used to the notion that they're made from grilled Italian bread rolls. A panino is, after all, just that: a bread roll. Once filled with something it becomes a panino imbottito. No pressing takes place under this definition, making for a product that's both brighter and lighter than the sandwich you might get at Central Market. From the list of fillings featuring prosciutto crudo (cured but uncooked; there are also sandwiches of prosciutto cotto, or cooked ham), we selected the Nicoló, a blend of Parma ham (lighter both in color and taste than the San Daniele), brie, arugula, tomato in micro-thin slices, and truffled oil. The brie seemed more like mozzarella to us, but otherwise this was a stunning sandwich with the peppery arugula acting like a ringmaster keeping all the flavors in check - even the very lightly truffled oil.

Il Panino
1201 N. Loop 1604
764-1511
11am-10pm Sun-Wed,
11am-11pm Thu-Sat
$6.65-8.95
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible
Grouped according to their major ingredient, the list of panini goes on to include smoked ham, roast beef, mortadella, salame, tacchino (turkey), salmone, vegetables, and cheese. Two others caught the collective eye: bresaola and tonno. Tonno because we think of the tuna salad sandwich as being uniquely American; bresaola because this salt-cured and air-dried beef from Alpine Italy has such a distinct flavor. Rethink the tuna sandwich in this case. The Luglio is simply canned tuna with mozzarella, tomatoes, olive oil, and pepper. No mayo, no celery, no chopped walnuts. I think you'll find it refreshing, but not as culturally compelling as the bresaola with its deep color and salty-sharp flavor. In the Moltacino rendition, more of that arresting arugula was paired with mozzarella, tomato, olive oil, and pepper to impressive effect. Another option, the Gubbio, comes with an artichoke cream.

If the panini make few concessions to popular American taste, the desserts should seem familiar to all. The torta di cioccolata looks for all the world like one of those death-by-chocolate cakes, but the reality is something else altogether. I'm still not sure that I really liked it, but I do suspect that our waiter's suggestion to choose the optional banana cream was a good idea; it added a moistness that the cake, for all its austere chocolate flavor, lacked. A really tight double espresso would probably help, too.

I don't think of profiteroles as being especially Italian, but they could probably be made so with the appropriate filling and topping - neither of which they got. The puff pastry and its pastry cream filling were both too cold to taste of much, and the topping needed a lift with less-sweet chocolate. Still, it was a pretty plate, and we thought we looked very worldly sitting in front of it - thinking "Piazza Navona," of course. Against all odds in the Vineyards.


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