America has a passion for grilled cheese sandwiches. From the standard home fare of American cheese stuffed between white bread to the exotic creations dreamt up in fine dining establishments across this country, we can’t seem to get enough of this humble sandwich. Of course, in finer dining establishments they aren’t called grilled cheese sandwiches, but rather they are called paninis. No one in their right mind is going to drop $8 or $9 or more for a “grilled cheese”, but give it an Italian name and stuff it with some roasted veggies and Italian cheese and we’ll snatch them up!

Don’t get me wrong; I love grilled cheese sandwiches in all their guises. There is something just so very satisfying about toasty bread oozing stringy cheese. I’ve mostly graduated from that childhood standard of American processed cheese and Wonder bread, though sometimes even that is just what I am looking for, to more exotic flavors. Gone is the Wonder bread, replaced by sourdough or a hearty whole grain bread. American processed cheese has been replaced by a world of cheese, sometimes something mild and gooey such as fresh mozzarella, sometimes it’s something tangy like asiago or a well aged cheddar and sometimes it’s something pungent (or stinky as my daughter might say) such as a well ripened Gorgonzola, or better yet a mix of cheeses, providing a number of flavors and textures all at once.

Some days I like my grilled cheese plain, with nothing but cheese. On other days, I like to stuff my sandwiches full with meats, vegetables, or even fruits, all depending on my tastes and what cheeses I have hanging around.

Today’s sandwich was a last minute creation, when my wife asked me to pick something up, at the store, for dinner. I would love to be able to tell you that the roasted peppers, marinated artichokes, and roasted tomatoes packed in olive oil were my creations, but they weren’t. This was dinner “on the fly,” after a hard day at work.

Living in Wisconsin, I would be remiss if I didn’t tout the cheeses made here, in this state. Wisconsin gets kind of a bad rap, I should know, I used to kind of laugh at it before I moved here, but this state produces some extraordinary cheeses. Wisconsin has some of the best cheese makers in the world. It is easy to focus on the vast quantities of bland, “American” cheeses this state produces to supply our countries demand for boring, tasteless cheese, but beyond that there are many great cheese makers here producing cheeses that are well thought of and sought out the world over. The fresh mozzarella I used comes from Belgioioso. It’s a cow’s milk mozzarella with a delicate milk flavor and a nice soft texture that melts well. To give the sandwich a counterpoint I sprinkled some grated Bellavitano cheese over top. Bellavitano is a line of cheeses from Sartori, another Wisconsin cheese maker. Paul Sartori emigrated to this country, from a small village just outside of Asiago, Italy in the early part of the 20th century. By 1939 he had started his own cheese making company, which eventually became Sartori Foods. They have always focused on Italian and Italian influenced cheeses. One of their newest cheeses is Bellavitano, and I find it’s flavor profile to be somewhere between asiago and parmesan. Not quite as sharp or as dry as parmesan, but a bit more assertive than asiago. This one was then finished off with a soaking in balsamic vinegar adding another layer of flavor and a hint of sweetness, a perfect mix with the fresh mozzarella.

I call this an Antipasto Panini as most of the items in this sandwich you would find on a standard antipasto board.

Antipasto Panini
for each sandwich

4 oz. fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1oz. Bellavitano Balsamic cheese, grated (substitute asiago in place if you can’t find Bellavitano by Sartori)
2 slices prosciutto
1 oz. roasted peppers, cut into julienne
2 oz. roasted tomatoes, tossed in olive oil with minced garlic, basil and oregano
2 oz. marinated artichoke hearts
2 slices sourdough bread, at least 1/2 inch thick
olive oil

Preheat a panini grill. Meanwhile place mozzarella on one slice of bread, covering completely. Cover with prosciutto. Top prosciutto with peppers, artichokes and tomatoes. Sprinkle Bellavitano or asiago over top of everything. Cover with second slice of bread. Brush outside of sandwich with olive oil and grill until browned on the outside and the cheese has melted.