A grilled cheese sandwich. One of the most perfect foods to eat, especially if we’re talking about a grilled cheese done in the form of an Italian panino. (Plural: panini) Last August I wrote about this little Italian panini shop and wine bar in Greenwich Village called ‘ino. Opened by Jason and Jennifer Denton, protégées of Mario Batali, this is the cutest place and, though I didn’t know it beforehand, kind of a ‘big deal” in the New York Italian restaurant scene.
The place is tiny – perhaps ten two-seater tables plus a half-dozen stools at the wine bar. With a brick wall on one side and a bar on the other, it is cozy and welcoming, a place that you just want to stop by on your way home to have a drink, snack on a few tasty bites of something, and catch up on the neighborhood gossip. It is what I think a “third place” should look like.
The kitchen is thirty square feet, no larger than enough room for two people, two panini grills, and a toaster oven. It is enough to make me stop complaining about my kitchen and instead think about adding some more shelves.
Tawn’s school friend Rosrin and her husband Sean recently moved to Manhattan from Boston, and had their first child, Quinn. Being equally big foodies as Tawn and me, we met Rosrin (along with her father and her son) for an early lunch one morning.
Back at home, we regularly make panini as a weeknight dinner. Cut from a fresh loaf of homemade whole grain bread, two grilled slices with some meat, cheese, and something tangy inside make for a healthy and wholesome meal. Serve it up with a side of mixed greens and it transforms the ordinary sandwich into something really special.
While eating, I discovered that ‘ino sells their cookbook, Simple Italian Sandwiches: Recipes from America’s Favorite Panini Bar. Needless to say, I now have a copy. Now, why do I need a recipe book for something that is, at its most basic, a grilled cheese sandwich? Because I realize that my panini, while satisfying, are pretty plain. I’m not getting the most out of them. The panini I eat at ‘ino have another level of flavor complexity that elevates them to a whole other plane of existence.
For Tawn, there was one objective in mind, besides visiting with Rosrin: to have a slice of ‘ino’s truffled egg toast. This thick-cut white bread is toasted, hollowed out, filled with egg yolks, and topped with fontina cheese. After a few minutes of broiling, a healthy dash of truffle oil is poured on top and some sautéed asparagus is served alongside. Available morning, noon, and night, the egg toast is the highlight of the menu.
Now that I have the cookbook, I’ve discovered the not-so-secret secret to making their egg toast. When I tried this at home after our last trip, I put a whole egg into the middle of the toast, which was too much egg and overflowed. Now I realize that the trick is to use two yolks and no whites.
I’ve also learned about several spreads and sauces I can make to help spice up my panini at home: roasted peppers, olive tapenade, an balsamic roasted garlic, to name a few. Watch for some future entries resulting from the purchase of this cookbook.
Above: Panino with pepperonata (roasted bell peppers), fresh mozzarella cheese, and basil pesto.
The panini are really exquisite at ‘ino. Another lesson I learned is that instead of cutting slices from a loaf of bread, they use ciabatta rolls with the top sliced off. This ensures that every bite has some crust from the bottom side. I’ve tried doing this but so far my homemade ciabatta have so many large bubbles that fillings form the panini spill through the bread. I’ll have to keep practicing and see if I can create (and then consistently reproduce) a ciabatta that compares to the ones made at the Blue Ribbon Bakery, the next door bread supplier for ‘ino.
Above: Scrambled egg, cheese, and sweet onions. How’s that for a breakfast treat?
We returned for breakfast the day before we left, one last chance to enjoy one of the most fun little restaurants we’ve been to, a gem that we would love to recreate here in Krungthep.
Could you imagine this somewhere along Soi Thong Lor? Not with people dressed like this, I think.