Although the name suggests otherwise, Hot & Crusty is actually a rather successful “bakery and café” chain, and there happens to be a location just three blocks from my mom’s apartment. It’s not exactly the type of place that I’d typically be drawn to, but based on its proximity and 24-hour service, it quickly became my go-to spot for tipsy feasting during my college days.
I don’t want to toot my own horn here or induce jealousy among any Upper East Side H&C patrons, but I was definitely their favorite customer. I know this for a fact because the short order cook with the ponytail gave me a hug and told me he loved me one night circa December 2008. (I was a particularly frequent H&C visitor while crushing the holiday party circuit.) Based on the other cooks enthusiastically banging their spatulas on the grill, I’m pretty sure the entire staff shared Marco’s feelings.
Now, I didn’t become H&C’s most beloved customer overnight. It took many years of patronage, and you better believe I earned that title. Yes, part of my appeal probably had to do with my wardrobe (which involved a lot of sequin mini dresses) and excessive spending on snacks, but I like to think that I was mostly valued for my loyalty. There were several tempting Chinese restaurants and pizza joints in the area, but I never once set foot inside any of them after midnight. When it came to late-night food, I was proudly in a monogamous relationship with H&C.
My bestie Fifi was often my late-night partner in crime, and while she did not share my H&C celebrity status, she did manage to one-up my order every time. You see, I favored cold sandwiches/snacks for their convenience, but Fifi always ordered the Mediterranean chicken panini. This was extremely annoying, as it tacked an extra 5-7 minutes onto our wait time (which meant I’d need to remove my high heels and/or lie down on a table), but I was inevitably jealous when we got home and she had hot melted cheese and I didn’t.
Fifi would usually give me a single bite of her grilled sandwich, which made me hate her even more because those panini were DELICIOUS (I’m talking Michelin-starred fare to my vodka-soaked taste buds), and there is nothing worse than being drunk and wanting what you can’t have. The practical solution to this recurring problem would have been to start ordering my own panini, but I wasn’t at my most reasonable during H&C visits. Duh.
(Un)fortunately, I haven’t been back to my favorite H&C since moving to the West Village three years ago, but I was reminded of its wonders when I walked past a busy downtown outpost last week. Overcome with nostalgia and a sober craving for a panini, I knew I had to recreate that Mediterranean chicken perfection for myself all of you. And that, friends, is why you’re staring at pictures of this Cheesy Pesto Chicken Panini with Prosciutto and Tomatoes right now.
I never really make panini, but I have to say, the process is surprisingly fun. Don’t worry, you don’t need a fancy panini maker, just a grill pan and a heavy skillet to squish the sando while it cooks. Yes, you can use a regular pan if you don’t have a grill pan, but please purchase the latter ASAP. (For the infinitieth time, you need it to make a lot of dankness. Like this and these.)
As far as flavor goes, the situation happening in this particular panini is rather extraordinary. In fact, I’d venture to say it warrants all four of my favorite words: glorious, magical, mind-blowing, and life-changing. Take a second to let that sink in…
Straight up pesto chicken and cheese is obviously a money combo, but getting some salty prosciutto and the juiciest of summer tomatoes involved really takes things up a notch, as does the addition of not one, but TWO types of cheese. Lots of ooey-gooey mozzarella and just enough creamy goat cheese for a subtle tang? Si. Grazie.
You’ll see in the ingredient list that I used flatbread instead of ciabatta, baguette or sandwich bread. This was a calculated choice (made in deference to the magicians at H&C), and it was somewhat of a gamechanger. When it comes to sandwiches, I like maximum fillings with minimal breading, and flatbread is the perfect shell for this panini’s badass components. It provides just the right amount of chew/crunch while letting the fillings shine.
I highly recommend working these fabulous and incredibly simple panini into your weekly recipe rotation immediately. If you use store bought rotisserie chicken like I did (you know it’s bomb), this is easily a 15-minute meal. Those of you that are super organized can even prep the sandwiches up to a day in advance, and then just panini-fy them come lunch or dinner (or late-night). Done and done.
p.s. If anyone stops by the 86th St. Hot & Crusty location, please give Marco a hug and tell him it’s from “Selena.”
Pesto Chicken Panini with Prosciutto and Tomatoes: (Serves 4)
2 cups chopped chicken breast (I just used a store-bought rotisserie chicken but feel free to roast/grill your own chicken breasts if you’re feeling particularly domestic.)
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons basil pesto
4 8-inch round flatbreads (or 8 slices of your favorite bread)
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
2 ounces goat cheese
2 ripe tomatoes sliced
1/8 pound thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma
Preparing your Pesto Chicken Paninis with Prosciutto and Tomatoes:
-Place your chopped chicken breast in a mixing bowl. Add the pesto and mix until well combined.
-Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the first sandwich. Place a cast-iron skillet (or whatever heavy pan you have) on top, and cook for 3 minutes. Flip the sandwich, put the skillet back on top, and cook for another three minutes until the cheese has melted and the sandwich has sexy grill marks. Repeat with the second panini. (NOTE: If you have a Panini maker, you should obviously use it.)