The panini press is on its way to becoming this decade’s version of the gelato maker or espresso machine: a sophisticated appliance that promises to turn out a simple Italian pleasure right in your very own kitchen.
Panini, of course, are the thin sandwiches Americans are becoming addicted to. The components are simple: bread and cheese, vegetables or meat. The sandwich is put into a contraption like a waffle iron, toasted and pressed until it becomes an irresistible sum of its parts.
Who wouldn’t want to reproduce that at home? And so store shelves now display these latest gadgets for the counter top, ranging in price from about $80 for a basic model to $600 for a professional version.
We put a couple to the test and threw in a little of our own ingenuity: How good a panini could we make with nothing more than a cast-iron skillet and a “press” made from a baking sheet and a couple of bricks?
At the top of the scale, the $600 Equipex almost frightened us. Heavy and capable of high heat (up to 570 degrees), it pressed the sandwich the best, producing deep grill marks; it was nice, flat and looked made in Italy -- or at least a restaurant. The top adjusted to fit what was on the grill, and held the sandwich firmly in place.
The modestly priced grill by Flama produced a disappointing sandwich; the adjustable lid wasn’t heavy enough. Our panini stood taller than it should have and looked like an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich. The grill marks on the bread were golden but uneven (probably because of that lack of pressure).
Finally, there was our do-it-yourself model. We heated a cast-iron grill pan, slapped on some sandwiches, and smooshed them with two bricks on top of a baking sheet. The result: Grill marks scored the bread in a deep, rustic way and the cheese melted in gooey dribbles down the crust. The sandwich was hot and messy -- a perfect panini.
Are we ready to run out and buy one of these machines? No, but if you can point us in the direction of a brickyard, we’re set.
The Ferrari of sandwich presses
What’s the difference: The Equipex panini press is almost too heavy for one person to lift. Big and industrial-looking, it has the heft and high heat to flatten and evenly grill a sandwich in minutes.
What we thought: The adjustable lid made panini making a snap, but we’d buy this baby only if we ran a restaurant.
How much: $600 at Surfas in Culver City, and at other restaurant supply stores.
The middle of the road: no fuss and no frills
What’s the difference: The Flama looks like a waffle iron -- it’s lightweight but the adjustable lid isn’t heavy enough to flatten a sandwich. The result: more a grilled cheese than a panini.
What we thought: Kind of wimpy. Sure, you can say you make panini at home, but is this what you really want?
How much: $89.95 from Sur La Table stores and at www.surla table.com, as well as other kitchen stores and Web sites.
For do-it-yourselfers: Take two bricks....
What’s the difference: No trip to the store is necessary. Just heat a grill pan over medium-high heat, slap on the sandwiches, top with a baking sheet weighted with two bricks, and grill 2 1/2 minutes. Flip, weight again, and grill 30 seconds.
What we thought: Outstanding. Sometimes, technology isn’t better.
How much: Free, or the cost of two bricks.