Ah, Florence! The cobblestone streets, the Duomo towering over the piazza, the bridges across the river Arno…if you had visited Florence, or studied in Florence, these are the things that left an impression in your mind. These things and maybe some delicious paninis you have gotten just around the corner after admiring the sculptures in the Piazza della Signoria (they are just standing there – no line to get in, no tickets to buy!). A couple of quick turns deposit one (tourist, student, or just a panini lover) onto Via dei Neri, and the lines forming mid-block guide you to your destination: All’antico Vinaio.
The focaccia is baked in-house, with a liberal sprinkling of salt and rosemary adorning each tray, which is then sliced into generous squares, and stuffed with an array of cured meats, spreads, and vegetables. Prosciutto, porchetta, lardo – just about any cured meat it available for your gastronomic pleasure, accessorized with cheese (the options are not limited to mozzarella alone), peppery arugula, or roast vegetables. There are a few tables in the back, or you can take your haul away and eat it al fresco with a view of some fabulous Florentine piazza. You dream of doing this again the following day.
But all things come to an end, and so does your vacation or study abroad. New York City is a long way away from Florence for a sandwich, although how you wish it were closer…well, wishes do come true! From June 13th until July 13, you can get your favorite panini much closer to home – at the first-ever international Antico Vinaio pop-up taking place at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria at 1 Fifth Avenue. Run, do not walk to claim your spot in line, because the line is there every single day, and it forms before opening time at 12:00PM sharp! When we visited on a Saturday, the line was wrapped down the block and around the corner, almost to Washington Square Park, buzzing with excitement and anticipation in spite of the fact that there was a limit of two paninis per person – they sold out in a matter of a couple of hours in the first few days of opening.
The menu consists of six offerings, or at least this was the situation on June 15, two days after opening. The focaccia is baked in-house, the meats are either sourced from Italy or made in house, or, when an Italian product is unavailable, a domestic producer with origins in the same region of Italy as Antico Vinaio is used. Much effort was made to recreate the paninis as faithfully as possible, including flying the panini-makers from Florence. The baker who supplies the Florentine shops with focaccia also came over to teach the Otto staff how to make the delicious bread that forms the foundation of the panini. One can only hope that this is a market test that good ol’ New York City passes with flying colors, and that there is our very own Antico Vinaio in our future!
Our favorite was the Inferno (House-Made Porchetta, Nduja, Grilled Eggplant, Arugula), a taste which we apparently share with Ron Howard who used to order it during his stint in Florence while filming the movie Inferno – I wonder if Tom Hanks had a favorite panini? The runner up would probably be La Summer (Prosciutto Toscano, Bufula Mozzarella, Pomodoro, Basil, Olive Oil, Balsamico). We ordered four (blast the two per person limit!), with La Boss (Prosciutto Toscano, Pecorino Cream, Truffle Cream) and La Dante (Cappocolo, Stracchino, Truffle Cream, Arugula) rounding up our haul.
Were these as good as the ones in Florence, might you ask? It is a complicated question. Everything is better on vacation, of course, and the panini options are more plentiful in Florence given the ease of sourcing of the right meats and cheeses. But this was some excellent focaccia stuffed with delicious meats, cheese, and vegetables, and we did not have to get on a plane to get it. Definitely better than any other panini I’ve had this side of the Atlantic. Should you go? I think you should, but get there early and be ready for things to take a bit of time.