Italian-inspired panini bars are springing up all over town, much to our penny-pinching delight, from Press Café in the Bronx to Press 195 in Brooklyn. But lately, ambitious panini-meisters have been swapping hot soppressata for smoked tofu and installing presses everywhere from Dumbo art-supply stores to Chelsea pool halls. When our wheatgrass-juicing health-club café hopped on the bandwagon, we feared the trend had spun out of control. To put things in perspective, we needed the wisdom of an Italian-food expert, a sandwich connoisseur, and an opinionated tastemaker. We needed Mario Batali.
No stranger to late-night cravings himself -- some of which he satisfies at home on a stovetop press ("$11.95 on chef.com") -- Batali came close to opening a panini place with chef Tom Valenti before the market became saturated and Valenti hit a home run with Ouest. So when we proposed a panini bar crawl, it brought back good memories. "My favorite chain in the world is the Autogrille in Italy," Batali says. "You drive down any of the superhighways and see signs for the rest stop, like Roy Rogers on the Jersey Turnpike." But instead of burgers, "there's 25 feet of deli case and baskets of premade sandwiches with crazy names. You point at one and they put it on the press."
Sneaking out of his busy Babbo kitchen one night, he comes armed with a manifesto: "Panini covers everything from pressed ciabatta sandwiches to tramezzini, those little tea sandwiches -- but they're all about balance. The American tendency is to obfuscate the perfect simplicity of the sandwich by putting too much crap in it. The bread is the main event; there shouldn't be more stuff inside than outside."
With these panini truths held to be self-evident, we set out on our rounds, only to be foiled on our first try. Paradou (8 Little West 12th Street; 212-463-8345), the French wine bar that makes a mean pressed sandwich of duck rillettes and capers, is packed. "That's what happens when you want to eat dinner at 8:30 without a reservation," says Batali, finding himself in his devoted clientele's shoes.
Humbled and hungry, we shoot up to Via Quadronno (25 East 73rd Street; 212-650-9880), a Milan-style sandwich shop and restaurant on the Upper East Side, terra incognita for a man rarely seen in anything other than short pants and Converse high tops. "Eight bucks for a bottle of Moretti, dudes," he whispers. "Now you know why I don't come up here." (We make a mental note to check the price of beer at Babbo.) Although the sandwiches are more reasonable ($5.50 to $14), the kitchen, sadly, has run out of its terrific housemade rolls and is substituting a crustier sliced bread. "This is delicious," Batali says, sinking his teeth into the house specialty, the non ti scordar di me, or forget-me-not (speck, brie, and pâté), "but no more than two bites of each sandwich, guys, or we'll never make it." What's this? The star of Molto Mario and Mario Eats Italy admonishing us to show some restraint? "One more bite," he continues, "then we have to take all of this to go so they don't think we think they suck." Back in the car with a bag of panini at our feet, Batali offers a critique. "The bread wasn't necessarily right," he concedes, "but the speck on that don't-forget-me baby was perfect. I was suspicious about the pâté with the brie, but it was delicious because they used it like a condiment."
Next stop Brooklyn, where we roll up to a new enoteca called D.O.C. Wine Bar (83 North 7th Street; 718-963-1925). With its out-of-the-way charm and candlelit farmhouse tables, D.O.C isn't the Autogrille, but it makes a good pressed mortadella panino ($5.50), with fontina, basil, and capers on a crunchy ciabatta. At the bar, Batali and Sardinian-born owner Claudio Coronas rhapsodize over the simple pleasures of carta da musica, the Sardinian flatbread Coronas serves with platters of cured meats and cheeses. "I was humbled by that guy being such a cool dude and describing his bread and being so involved," Batali says as we leave with another bag of sandwiches, each minus two bites. "That is the sweetness of the Italian culture."
Back in Manhattan, it's standing room only at the East Village's Bar Veloce (175 Second Avenue; 212-260-3200), easily the most stylish panini bar in town -- and, happily, bearing no stigma from last month's visit by a gun-wielding madman. We cruise down to its new Soho branch (17 Cleveland Place; 212-966-7334) and belly up to the bar. "These are the most texturally correct," Batali says, biting into carefully layered speck, Taleggio, and grappa-cured apples ($6.50) possessing what he discerns to be "the essence of fondue, just a hint of grappa." Bonus points: Batali likes the wine list -- "There's twenty-something-or-other here and I don't know five of them."
To end the evening, we head to the place that launched the panini craze way back when "Italian sandwiches" meant six-foot monstrosities from Manganaro's Hero Boy. As soon as we arrive at 'ino (21 Bedford Street; 212-989-5769), owned by Jason Denton, one of Batali's partners at Lupa, we discover why our companion's been saving himself. Batali roosts at the bar, orders a bottle of wine, and tucks into a portobello-grana-and-sun-dried-tomato-pesto panino ($8). He raves about the lightness of the bread -- an 'ino signature. "It's crisp, but still easy to bite through," he says, "and the proportion of filling is just perfect." Before we know it, we're facing a stack of sandwiches. And finally, following Molto Mario's cue, we exceed the two-bite minimum.