Full Court Press

In cafes, wine bars and quickservice chains, flatbreads and panini are recruited as the best defense against uninspired sandwich menus.

If there’s a secret to sating thrill-seeking customers, it’s giving them something different. When it comes to revitalizing a sandwich menu, two such players have emerged as essential: Italian-style panini (sandwiches grilled in a deeply grooved press) and flatbreads. These items share the strategy of relying on appealing texture to give time-honored flavor combinations new life.

A bevy of chains have realized the potential of these items. Taco Bell, the 7,300-unit, Irvine, CA-based quickservice chain, recently introduced the Chalupa, a flatbread taco contained in a soft, chewy outer shell with a golden-brown inner layer that is crispy and flaky. The Chalupas, which can be stuffed with seasoned beef, chicken or steak, are available in three varieties, Supreme, Baja and Santa Fe, and start at 99[cent].

Chicago Flat Sammies, an 80-seat quickservice destination in Chicago, features sandwiches on sesame-whole wheat flatbread. According to chef/manager George Munoz, flatbreads appeal to people “tired of the same old burger.” Best sellers include Grilled Pesto Chicken ($5.45), with four cheeses, plum tomatoes and fresh basil; and Oven Roasted Vegetable ($5.45), a with portobello mushrooms, peppers and an artichoke schmear. “The healthier sandwiches are my best sellers,” he says. “Varieties with lots of meat are slower on the board.”

Steeped in Italian romance, panini is equally intriguing to customers and operators. While the grills require a substantial investment (typically between $700-$2,000), they are particularly appealing to concepts that can’t invest in a full kitchen. Such is the case at Agata & Valentina’s, a tony cafe in Manhattan that serves six different panini grilled in the deeply-grooved toaster from Italy. The sandwiches, priced from $3-$6.95, range from prosciutto crudo, roasted peppers and arugula on a Portuguese roll, to roasted eggplant with tomato and basil on a rosette roll. As the bread crisps, the cheese melts and holds the sandwich together.

“We wanted to offer an authentic Italian experience, but couldn’t afford a hood system,” says Jason Denton, chef and co-owner of Ino, a new 23-seat Italian wine and sandwich bar, also in Manhattan. Denton was attracted to the Italian tradition of menuing sandwiches as afternoon snacks, a philosophy that conveniently blurs dayparts. The theory has proven profitable in a neighborhood heavy with pedestrian traffic. “We get a crunch time between two and four, when everyone else is closed,” he says.

‘Ino’s menu features assorted bruschetta ($2), panini ($7) and crustless Italian cocktail sandwiches called tremezzini ($6). The panini menu includes such full-flavored options as Prosciutto, Bel Paese and Sweet Onion, Portobello, Grana and Sundried Tomato Pesto, and Three Cheese and Truffle Oil.

‘Ino’s panini are made on ciabatta purchased from a nearby bakery that arrives 65% cooked. When it’s squeezed between the heating elements, explains Denton, the bread finishes cooking. “Too often you get bread that’s already cooked through, so the crust becomes too hard on the grill and it scrapes the roof of your mouth. To me, it’s more flavorful when there is a little tenderness.”

In an ongoing effort to upgrade its food, Starbucks Cafe, the 6-unit, Seattle-based concept, hired a European-trained chef to revamp the menu. A focus on sandwiches, which sell from $5.95-$8.95, was paramount.

The result is a range of combinations that are finished on a panini press. Best sellers include: grilled chicken with provolone cheese, pancetta, sundried pesto on a bollo roll, and a sandwich filled with roasted wild mushrooms and artichoke-garlic cream cheese grilled on sourdough. Despite the pricey fillings, food costs are maintained at 28%.

According to John Yamin, director of new concepts for the coffee behemoth, the challenge in menuing panini is ensuring that the integrity of the product will hold up under the grill. “Many people attempt to use the grilling process to hide inferior products,” says Yamin. “But the sandwich has to be able to stand on its own. Grilling should only enhance it.”

RECIPE

Saltimbocca Sandwich

  • 4 bunches sage, leaves separated Vegetable oil, as needed, for frying 16 slices flatbread
  • 1 lb. mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 lb. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 lb. smoked turkey, thinly sliced
  • 1 lb. prosciutto, thinly sliced
  • 12 oz. lettuce leaves .
  1. In a heavy skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Briefly fry sage leaves until bright green and crispy. Remove from oil and drain; reserve.
  2. In a bowl, combine mascarpone and cream cheeses.
  3. Spread cheese on half the bread slices; layer with remaining ingredients and top with second slice of bread. Grill in apaninipress or under a broiler until cheese bubbles, serve warm.

yield: 8 servings.