There seems to be an unholy synergy between sandwiches and faddism. Throw some Asian-inspired pickles along with just about anything else inside a baguette, call it a "banh mi" and watch it fly out the food-truck window. Do it with pork belly and charge another couple bucks. A few years ago, it was bacon. Before that, it was grilled cheese.
But before this recent parade of sandwich fads, there was the panini, an Italian sandwich of deli meats, cheese and veggies on ciabatta pressed between heated plates. In Milan in the 1980s, the term paninero (originally, the maker and seller of panini sandwiches) became a ubiquitous descriptor for an entire Italian youth culture fixated on fashion and obsessed with the trappings of '80s affluence. America took note.
One of the best places to sample panini in San Diego is Sogno di Vino (1607 India St. in Little Italy). A wine bar at night (the name translates as "to dream of wine"), Sogno's panini shine during the day. Perhaps the best is the muffalatta, featuring a slightly spicy Calabrese salami, ham, provolone, capers, tomatoes, red onion and pickled peppers. All of Sogno's panini are accompanied by a pasta salad, though the servers are happy to swap that out for a green salad featuring a stuffed cherry pepper. Though it's lacking the classic olive salad of its New Orleans' namesake, the pickled peppers and capers pick up the pungency and umami that are the hallmarks of the New Orleans Italian-immigrant original.
Another great panini at Sogno is the Black Forest, featuring black-forest ham, mustard, gruyere, roasted red bell peppers and basil leaves. Much like the croque monsieur at Currant restaurant—which I wrote about in Part 2 of my "Best Sandwich on the Planet" series—this, too, is "the ham-and-cheese sandwich taken to its logical extreme." Here, though, it's those roasted red bell peppers that take it over the top. Hardly the most assertive ingredient in the dish, their supple texture and slightly smoky flavor give the rest of the ingredients a starting point.
Not quite at the same level is Sogno's marinated-veggies panini with provolone. The variety of vegetables involved—particularly the peppers, eggplant and asparagus—and the textural contrasts with the grilled bread ought to have made for an interesting sandwich. But a one-dimensional flavor profile and lack of adequate seasoning disappointed.
The panini are not the only good choices. The beef carpaccio is a tasty, classic appetizer that Sogno executes well. One dish worth going back for on its own is the stuffed-avocado salad. Half an avocado sits atop a lettuce mixture, stuffed with smoked turkey and feta cheese, adorned with diced red onion, cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts with a lemon-parsley dressing. While the canned artichokes seemed a bit out of place, the whole of the dish was greater than the sum of its parts.
What better to do than enjoy one aspect of Italian culture while engaging in another: people watching? What better perch than a sidewalk table at the heart of Little Italy, a glass of wine in one hand, panini in the other? It's a recipe for a pleasant afternoon.