Nestled away in a corner of the bustling Ikebukuro Seibu depachika is a little piece of Milan, where you can indulge in authentic Italian panini stuffed with generous mounds of freshly-sliced paper-thin prosciutto and glasses of chilled prosecco. (Depachika is short for depato-chika, or department store basement, referring to the famed underground food halls of Japanese department stores). This is Panino Giusto, the gourmet panino restaurant founded in 1979 in Milan, which is the de facto global authority on the traditional Italian panino.
The entrepreneur couple behind the brand, Antonio Civita and Elena Riva, have even established a cultural foundation, Accademia del Panino Italiano (Academy of Italian Panino) in Milan this year, which aims to promote the panino as a distinctive Italian food icon to the world. Panino Giusto is now a growing international brand with 28 locations around the world, starting with the major cities of Italy followed by London, Hong Kong, and California. Here in Japan, they have two locations; this one in Ikebukuro and the other in Yokohama.
Mind you, the Ikebukuro shop is quite casual and basic, with some seating actually in an open corridor-like area facing Sanseido bookstore with quite a bit of pedestrian traffic going by; but well, let’s just think of it as a Tokyo version of those street-facing outdoor cafe seats in Milan. The food is mostly exactly the same as the original shops in Italy, with some exceptions, for instance, the sampler set of mini panini that was specially created for the Japanese market (which apparently was such a hit that it’s now on the menu at some shops in Italy too).
There was a bit of a buzz recently about this somewhat hidden spot in Ikebukuro when model and TV talento Izumi Mori, a self-proclaimed fan of Panino Giusto, introduced the shop on a TV segment and described the taste of her favorite Tartufo panino as "sexy." Whether it’s all due to this celebrity endorsement is hard to say, but according to Angelo Toscano, CEO of Panino Giusto Asia Pacific, the Tartufo is now their number-one selling item, with well more than half of all customers ordering this fragrant truffle-scented sandwich.
So of course when I visited, the Tartufo (1,250 yen) was one of the items I tried. Mamma mia! if Izumi wasn’t right. This sandwich, if it were a person, would be a sexy lover whose irresistible perfume you just can’t get enough of. The warm, crisp-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside roll is stuffed with a luxurious combination of succulent prosciutto, fresh milky brie, with a little tomato and rucola, which is all enveloped in the heavenly scent of Alba white truffle oil. As you may know, truffle aromatics are said to have similar chemical properties as human pheromones, and wow, does this panino give it off strong. (Here’s an experiment: get a warm Tartufo for take-out and try strolling a crowded Tokyo street with it under your arm… let’s see how many heads you turn.
The prosciutto at Panino Giusto is their original brand, produced by their contract farm in the Langhirano hills of the Parma region, using just pork and sea salt, and aged for a minimum of 24 months (the current batch of prosciutto is aged 26 months). The ham is always sliced to order, which totally makes a difference in texture, I’ve discovered, and when I say their panino is stuffed, I mean stuffed; 50 grams of this exquisite pink gold goes into each of the Tartufo and other prosciutto-containing panini.
Other items I tried include the namesake Giusto panino (1,200 yen), which is filled with prosciutto cotto di Praga, a cooked ham with a unique smoked taste, as well as mozzarella, tomato, anchovy, and seasoned with mustard; and Madras panino (1,400 yen), one of the special menu items created by 2-Michelin starred Italian chef Claudio Sadler, which is filled with turkey ham and mixed salad, and seasoned with curry-flavored mayo. (By the way if you’ve been wondering, "panini" is plural and "panino" is the singular form of the Italian word for sandwich). Good to know is that the aforementioned mini panini sampler consists of either two (1,100 yen) or three (1,600 yen) smaller versions of the panini, allowing you to try both the Tartufo and Giusto and other varieties at once. I personally would recommend the full-sized versions - the bread to filling ratio is near perfection and the whole composition is just so satisfying to bite into - but the minis are great for first timers and the curious.
Various salads and other menu items are also available. I tried the Favignana salad (1,500 yen), featuring grilled zucchini and eggplant with walnuts and parmigiano reggiano; super tasty, big portioned and a meal in itself.
I also had the prosciutto e melone which is one of their limited summer menu items. It’s a classic combination and something I’ve eaten a million times, but I was still impressed with the one here; a gorgeous plate of cantaloupe slices, adorned with a lavish portion of their amazing prosciutto, arranged into a beautiful circular pile looking like a humongous rose in full bloom. This is a steal at 1,300 yen.
I’ve come across a number of reviews of Panino Giusto by Japanese customers who say it’s their secret little place to indulge in a quick gourmet panino and glass of wine after work. Also as I witnessed on my visit, it’s a place of interest to visit in pairs or groups, to experience what authentic panini is all about, sharing bites of different flavors and discussing which one you each like best. Take-out is also very popular, understandably; I can totally see these luxury panini to be just the thing to accompany a nice bottle of wine at home. All menu items are available for take-out, and there’s even an affettati misti "party set" (5,000 yen) consisting of a variety of freshly sliced cold cuts - including the prosciutto of course - with parmigiano, mini salad, and bread. I’d say you’re in pretty good shape to host a mini wine party at home with this. Look out for their delivery on Uber Eats, and also catering services coming soon.
Ikebukuro Seibu bekkan (annex) B1
1-28-1 Minami Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo
Open everyday from 10.00 to 21.00, on Sunday closes at 20.00
Photos by Panino Giusto and Maki Yasuda.
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