Panini, Panino, Paninoinonionino
Take a walk into any Starbucks, and you’ll most likely find the refrigerated section of the shop where items such as fruit, yogurt and other delicious treats are stored and used to tempt you right before you place your coffee order. Among this selection, there are usually pre-wrapped sandwiches with labels such as the “Roasted Tomato and Mozzarella Panini” or the “Chicken Santa Fe Panini.”
While most of these sandwiches are very good and never fail to satisfy my hungry stomach, they unfortunately fall victim to a fast-spreading trend across America: the Panino versus Panini Epidemic.
Before I can explain this growing phenomenon, I first need to give a quick Italian lesson. Mind you, I am not from Italy, nor do I have any Italian ancestors, but after taking five years of Italian throughout high school and part of college, I do have a basic understanding of the language. And although I would by no means consider myself a perfect, fluent speaker of Italian, I do know a few rules when it comes to the language’s plural and singular words.
In Italian, most plural words either end in the letter “i” or “e,” while the singular words usually end in “o” or “a,” depending on the gender of the word. For example, if you wanted to say that you had one book, you would say “libro”; if you wanted to say that you had multiple books, the correct word would be “libri.”
And yep, you guessed it, the word “panini” refers to multiple sandwiches, while “panino” refers to just one sandwich.
So, every time people ask, “May I have a tomato and mozzarella panini?” they are essentially asking, “May I have a tomato and mozzarella sandwiches?” And, well … that just doesn’t sound quite right.
By this point in the article, some may be thinking, “Why do I even care about this? This is just some crazy girl rambling on about Italian grammar. Panino, Panini … call it whatever you want — I just want a delicious toasted sandwich.”
And while I can see how this could at first seem like a silly, trivial topic, there is a much larger underlying issue at hand here. How did this terminology even come into our mainstream American lingo? Who decided to call one sandwich a “panini,” and not even take five minutes to check if this was the correct Italian term? This is the way I see it — if you’re going to adopt a food item and make it popular in a foreign country, the least you could do is make sure that the grammatically correct form of the word is used. It just seems disrespectful to me to butcher the language like that. By enjoying and popularizing a food item such as the panino, we are honoring Italian culture — and with that, there is the need to honor the language as well.
I’m not trying to point fingers and accuse people of being ignorant and disrespectful, since most are unaware of this issue unless they know or speak Italian. The use of “panini” as the name of one sandwich is just such a widely employed term that I don’t blame people for not thinking twice about what it’s called — it’s just what we’ve been conditioned to call it. The fact that the name originated incorrectly and that this mistake has been widely spread is where my main concern lies. We should have just fixed this in the beginning, and then it wouldn’t even be an issue right now.
But now that we know the heart of the matter, we don’t have to keep committing this linguistic sin. Take this newfound rule and use it in your future food orders, and don’t forget that it applies to other Italian food items as well. For example, the next time you ask for “biscotti,” make sure to say “biscotto” if you’d only like one of these Italian cookies. The same also goes for “raviolo” (singular) and “ravioli,” (plural) or “cannolo” and “cannoli.”
The next time you step into a Starbucks or Panera Bread, I encourage you to ask for a panino (unless you are feeling especially hungry and would like more than one sandwich). The cashier may look at you as if you have six heads, but in your heart, you’ll know that you did the right thing and it could be the perfect opportunity to enlighten someone else on this issue.
We can hope for large-scale changes from big companies in the future, but every modification has to start somewhere, right?
Jessica Pratt is a third-year literary journalism major. The panino activist can be reached at email@example.com.