Early versions of panini first appeared in an Italian cookbook in 1656. The word "panini" is plural for "panino," which is a diminutive form of "pane," the Italian word for bread.
Although the word "panini" is plural, it indicates the sandwich itself in most English-speaking countries. It also refers to a bread roll, or a stuffed panino, which is called "panino imbottito" in Italian. The stuffing of a panino and the manner of cooking distinguish the sandwich from others.
The bread used for the sandwich is also distinct and is usually a baguette or michetta bread. Ciabatta bread is quite common as well, as Italians specifically use this bread to stuff and make sandwiches. Its name is Italian for "slipper." There is no standard panini recipe, and any combination of meats, cheeses and veggies is acceptable, such as salami and ham.
Cooks use a special grill to prepare panini. It is a loosely clam-shaped, hinged grill that cooks the outside of both the top and bottom slices of bread simultaneously. A panini press is another name for the grill.
The first reference to panini in the United States occurred in 1956. However, panini became trendy in the 1970s when they appeared on menus in paninoteche in Italy, which were Milanese sandwich bars. Restaurants in New York City caught on and subsequently began serving panini.