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Dining

Pressed for lunch

Three new options to indulge in the panini craze

Greg Thilmont

Panini—those heat-fused parcels of bread, meat, cheese and condiments—are the sandwich rage of the day. An Italian-inspired amalgam of good old grilled cheese and submarine sandwiches, the grill-flattened style is even found now in frozen Stouffer’s varieties. Panini are also featured items at three new restaurants here in Las Vegas.

The Spicy Pickle, Amazon Cafe and Espresso Culture & Cuisine each offer a different take on the panini craze.

The Spicy Pickle is the initial Vegas outpost of a Denver-based chain. Its menu includes cutesy names like the Gobbler (turkey, artichoke hearts, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes) and the South Side (roast beef, pepperoncini, cheddar cheese, horseradish mayo, lettuce, red onion and tomato). There also are salads running the spread from Caesar to spinach to Greek varieties. Subs and individual “pizzetti” are offered, too. The Spicy Pickle does get creative with ingredients from prosciutto to chipotle pesto and smoked mozzarella to kalamata olives.

The most common price points at the Spicy Pickle ($5.59, $6.89, $7.59) are low enough that the office lunch bunch will flock to it but high enough to imply that the ingredients are higher in quality than the Subway-ish ilk offers. And, indeed, the Spicy Pickle’s food is good for the fast lunch track. The nearby office park/hospital area needed something like it to widen the lunch-choice array.

Over on Stephanie and the 215 Beltway, Amazon Cafe is doing the corporate-chain gig, too. This Pennsylvania franchise, again here with its first Vegas outpost, goes for an earnest and upbeat healthy angle. With its menu pronouncement of “New! Paninis,” Amazon Cafe headquarters has obviously embraced pressed sandwiches, too. Varieties include an enjoyable turkey and brie panino and a ham, Swiss cheese and tomato combo.

While the Spicy Pickle heads toward fast sophistication, Amazon Cafe reaches more for the health-food aura. Along with panini, wraps, soups and salads loom huge on the Amazon Cafe roster. Prices hit the mid-range at around $6.49. More than a dozen frozen-fruit and juice smoothies (that aging craze) are blended up as well.

Amazon Cafe has a laid-back, mom-and-pop feel. It’s out in a still largely undeveloped and less-than-busy area of Henderson. Here’s hoping that mom and pop are ex-hippies turned real-estate and demographics gurus and will bring in loads of peppy customers.

The best new panini palace in town, easily, is Espresso Culture & Cuisine.

Espresso Culture & Cuisine is an independent establishment that has taken the high-concept road, both in décor and food. It’s definitely European with its modern architecture—low, square chairs and tables and high walls feature striking chromatic floral designs. Electronica plays. Espresso Culture & Cuisine is smooth and cool.

As for the panini? They are fabulous. The chicken and pesto job features whole breast meat as juicy as a pre-cooked piece of “lunch meat” could be expected to be. Other panini include a tomato-and-mozzarella mingling and an Italian meat collection. The menu at Espresso Culture & Cuisine is the shortest of the three, but it’s also the most traditionally Italian.

Outside the panini realm, Espresso Culture & Cuisine serves a fantastic antipasto salad. It’s a collection of deftly sliced soppresatta, mortadella and prosciutto accompanied by roasted peppers, marinated olives, fresh mozzarella, greens and more. Served in a mod-style white porcelain bowl, this salad is about as close to gorgeous as a workday lunch can offer.

The coffee service at Espresso Culture & Cuisine is also completely noteworthy in Vegas. Order a macchiato and you receive a glass demitasse, an almond cookie, slim paper tubes of sugar, a tiny spoon and a short tumbler of ice water, all presented on a small wooden serving plate. It is Italy. Wine and beer service offers even more Continental authenticity.

Espresso trends to the highest price range of these three panini palaces—$8 is a common starting point. You’re paying for a higher echelon of ingredients at Espresso Culture & Cuisine, though, and surely more expensive architecture. All in all, it’s a concept that calls out for franchising.

The Spicy Pickle

9985 S. Eastern Ave. Suite 100. 485-5907. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Amazon Cafe

19 S. Stephanie St. Suite 160. 655-9255. Open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Espresso Culture & Cuisine

9555 S. Eastern Ave. Suite 125. 243-4559. Open Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 6 a.m.-midnight; Sunday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m.

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