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Sunday, November 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Panini of a different stripe at Cafe Porta Alba
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The classico panini is made with prosciutto di parma and fresh mozzarella, and comes warm.
The classico panini is made with prosciutto di parma and fresh mozzarella, and comes warm.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

It's not enough to have a grilled cheese sandwich anymore. They've all transformed into panini, which in the United States generally translates into "grilled cheese with grill stripes" -- which is also what you see if you Google-image search "panini."

Wikipedia describes a panino (panini is plural) as Italy's version of a sub-type sandwich, made with a ciabatta roll, whereas "a grilled panino is buttered on the outside and grilled in a press," thus creating the stripes.

None of these descriptions cover the panini served at Cafe Porta Alba, downtown Madison's official purveyor of Neapolitan pizzas. These panini resemble very thin calzone, or non-greasy empanadas. They're also similar to a folded over version of Cafe Porta Alba's pizza.

The menu states that the panini are made "in our soft and freshly baked warm bread." When the folks at Cafe Porta Alba say "freshly baked," they are not kidding. The sandwich starts out as dough before your eyes. The chef kneads it into a flat little square and sticks it into the wood burning oven for a surprisingly brief period of time, which is enough to bake it. The sandwiches -- there are four on the menu -- get their fillings added are then finished in the oven for another few minutes. The whole procedure takes no more than five minutes.

The classico panini is made with prosciutto di parma and fresh mozzarella, and comes warm. The dough is wonderful and the prosciutto tender and salty and smoky. But overall, the sandwich feels more like an appetizer than a sandwich, its taste -- while pleasing -- too often hitting the same note. Maybe some fresh basil would balance the overpowering saltiness without ruining the purity of the idea.

The other three panini are a roasted vegetable; a bresaola, fontina and olive; and a sopressata, parmigiano, and red pepper (all $7.50). All come with a small side salad of fresh baby greens and a simple but perfect balsamic vinaigrette that's mild and slightly sweet.

Lunch at Cafe Porta Alba is served from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., from its regular menu.

I'm still on the hunt locally for an ungrilled panino featuring prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, tomato and fresh basil with a drizzle of vinaigrette on a nice fresh roll. Any ideas?

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