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Making an Italian sandwich very, very local

It takes a bit of courage in these times to open a locally owned panini shop — considering the number of national sandwich chains in the immediate area that have been serving those trendy toasted, pressed sandwiches for quite a while. But Linda Skoczek, who has been working in the catering and restaurant field for 20 years, should attract business from savvy northwest-siders who appreciate her locavore philosophy.

Skoczek, who opened her Panini Press in July in a storefront in a strip mall on Woodward Avenue just south of Twelve Mile Road, takes pride in the fact that virtually every product utilized in the creation of her meals is of local origin. That is a clear plus for our economy and is also an energy-saver.

The walls of the attractive lilliputian restaurant are painted a mellow yellow, adorned with a handful of photographs of Italian towns and a mercifully muted flat-screen TV. Because of its size, much of the business is takeout. Those who do decide to eat in at one of the eight small tables or along the wall counter are treated to free Wi-Fi.

In Italy, a panini originally referred to a small bread roll. In the United States, our paninis are much larger sandwiches whose foundation is often ciabatta or country Italian bread, the two most popular options at Panini Press. In addition, Skoczek, who buys her bread from a bakery a few miles from Berkley, offers paninis with white or multi-grain bread, roll-up wraps and even, somewhat incongruously, lettuce wraps for patrons concerned about the calories. For a slight extra charge, those with celiac disease and related afflictions can order a gluten-free panini. 

Panini Press is a cute play on words, as the nine sandwiches ($5.99) are named after fictitious newspapers whose hometowns reflect regional cuisine. Thus, the Boston Bulletin is redolent of its fabled North End, with hard salami, mortadella, capicola, provolone, lettuce, tomato and Italian vinaigrette, while the Kansas City Press laces shaved roast beef, caramelized red onions and provolone with — what else? — smoky barbecue sauce.

That shaved roast beef, which also appears in the Philadelphia Post — sort of a Philly cheesesteak with provolone, red peppers, and onions — may be a little salty and too well-done for some diners. A healthier choice is the zesty vegetarian New York Herald that flaunts roasted red and yellow peppers with Brie and red-pepper mayo.

All of the paninis ooze luscious melted cheese. Customers who are lactose-intolerant can ask for a substitute and, since all the sandwiches are made to order, they can pick and choose among the ingredients. For example, the San Francisco Daily, with roma tomatoes and mozzarella in a balsamic vinaigrette, may be a bit heavy on the fresh basil for those who dislike the spice. Although everything is made from scratch, most panini preparations need only five minutes or so in the press before their ingredients blend into one another and the bread toasts up. 

Other paninis include a Traverse City Times with ham, Brie, Granny Smith apple, and sweet mustard sauce, a Plymouth (Mass.) Pages consisting of smoked turkey, red onion, arugula, provolone and pesto-mayo sauce, the Key West Courier with a crunchy albacore tuna salad that overwhelms the cheddar-cheese melt, and the Tucson Tribune, crammed full of chunks of grilled chicken breast accompanied by grilled onions, bell peppers, Monterey jack and spicy mayo.

Not all of the paninis are as generously proportioned as the Tucson and the Key West, particularly the vegetarian selections. You can, however, double the size of any filling by paying an additional $1.50.

Detroit's renowned Better Made potato chips, an excellent house-made slightly vinegary coleslaw, well-crafted Kalamazoo sour pickles (well worth the seemingly exorbitant $.75), and soup constitute the rest of the limited menu. The soup from a local vendor is worth a try, especially if fire-roasted vegetable is the daily special. For dessert, Skoczek makes her own brownies and chocolate chip cookies. Children can opt for a cheddar-cheese or peanut butter and jelly (!) panini or a grilled hot-dog roll up.

Refillable soft drinks such as Coke and Diet Coke, lemonade and iced tea are available at $1.39. However, because of limited counter space in the tiny open kitchen, Panini Press does not serve coffee. 

A budget-balancing special features a panini, soft drink, and chips or coleslaw or ciabatta bread sticks and dipping oil for $7.99. You can also order those soft bread sticks for $1 a la carte. However, bread sticks and panini seem even more redundant than that ever-popular crazy bread-and-pizza combo.

The locally owned and operated Panini Press, with its admirable locavore orientation and fresh and inventive sandwich ingredients, should be the panini shop of choice for politically correct gourmands.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].