The word panini has been bandied about New York’s delis and takeout counters, most often in the misrepresented form of a flatbread sandwich. The owners of Panino Sportivo Roma take pride in channeling the authentic Italian paninoteca experience in their South Harlem restaurant. As any connoisseur will attest, the true panino is defined by simple, fresh ingredients: meats, cheeses and fish are imported directly from Italy to ensure the authentic European taste. Traditional recipes for spreads and dressings are recreated from scratch in lieu of the packaged alternatives and – to ensure a singular taste – sandwiches are made with a special bread developed exclusively for Panino Sportivo.
The concept was born from owner Federico Galeotti’s desire to capture and recreate the casual sights, sounds, and flavors of his native Italy. More than a sandwich shop, Panino Sportivo Roma is a gathering place where locals can learn about upcoming Italian film series or attend Italian wine-tasting seminars. Most of all, the experience is rooted in authenticity – it’s the coffee bar you frequent on your way to work or school to take an espresso and share a few words with others, the place to grab a freshly toasted panini with prosciutto sliced so thin you can read the Corriere Della Sera newspaper through it.
The restaurant’s decor pays homage to Italy’s second national pastime – European football. Emblazoned in the gold and burgundy hues of Rome’s soccer team, the space also offers spirited touches like a soccer ball-themed couch and a restroom emblazoned with oversized trading card pictures of the team players. A plasma television tuned the latest European football matches serves as a draw for European expats and locals alike. A second outpost, based on the colors of Milano’s football team, is currently in development.
Panino Sportivo Roma is the brainchild of Italian restaurateur Federico Galeotti. Seeking to recreate the casual paninoteca that line the roadsides of Italy, Galeotti enlisted his childhood friend, businessman James Race. The two men, products of peripatetic childhoods, forged a bond as European football-obsessed youths stationed in Houston, Texas. Nearly two decades later, they reconnected on the streets of Manhattan and partnership quickly followed. Their flagship restaurant, Panino Sportivo Roma opened in September 2003 at 1231 Amsterdam Avenue, adjacent to Columbia and Barnard Universities.
Launching their flagship in the thriving SoHa (South Harlem) neighborhood was key to establishing the essential “neighborhood” feel that the owners were seeking. “It was very important that the location offer a sense of community and culture, a place where people could exchange ideas over an espresso at the bar,” says Galeotti. “Having this diverse clientele that includes Columbia students, professors, local artists and fellow business owners gives the place a real authenticity, which has been our mantra throughout.”
Galeotti hopes that their restaurant will not only nourish, but enlighten the community about the casual, contemporary tastes of Italy. From imported sodas to hot chocolate made with Nutella, Panino Sportivo Roma’s offerings make no attempt to “Americanize” the paninoteca experience but serve as a window into the way Italians actually eat today.