For many, Italian sandwiches have come to mean over-packed footlong monsters. They leave behind a greasy aftertaste and even fouler smell. Sadly, Phnom Penh can lay claim to some of the worst panini I have ever tasted at a coffee chain that will remain unnamed. Even stalwart indie cafes have disappointed, serving floppy pepper and plastic mozzarella shoved into lukewarm buns. It’s a tender-loving-care deficiency. Few people love the panini enough to dedicate themselves to its betterment.
Thankfully, that’s not the case for Chiara Lodovica De Lucia. At the risk of sounding peculiar, I’ve been following the evolution of Da Sandro Panini Bar, which De Lucia set up, for some time, ever since its Facebook page popped up a few months ago.
Enticing photos began to appear: an Instagrammed wooden table and chairs; a deli counter loaded with cold cuts; tantalising close-ups on Italian ingredients including the king of all cheeses: buffalo mozzarella.
Last week, the doors finally opened and I was one of the first through. Dozens of others had the same idea so the place, which is lovely but distinctly cosy, was heaving. So it deserves to be. De Lucia, a Florence native who has lived in Phnom Penh for a year, has dreamed of a Da Sandro for years, since she spent time in Milan, the panini capital of Italy. Her grandfather’s death earlier this year gave her the impetus to make it happen and Da Sandro is dedicated to his memory. She says she wants to keep the idea of “grandparents’ cooking” alive.
The result blends homey with modernity. The simple interior of whitewashed walls and a red, green and white colour scheme appears both polished and laid-back. The same goes for the clientele: men in plaid shirts and city shorts sit beside families with bright-eyed, curly-haired bambinos and girls with long legs and blue eyes who prompted longing looks from my companions and wistful remarks like “Why are Italians so thin?” There’s even a porch with little wooden benches where you can dine al fresco.
The menu, written on a black chalkboard, carries 20 options including panini, cheaper “toasts” and salads. De Lucia says they are constantly “experimenting”. At up to $7.50 a piece, the panini are expensive. It’s just as well they look, and taste, it. De Sandro declares herself a “super-fan” of panini, and her creations are made and presented with love, coming wrapped in brown paper like posh fish and chips. As in any good panino, the bread (hand-made by a French baker) is the main event. The ciabatta is crisp, but easy to bite through – in Italy, grilled ciabatta is the only bread for panini.
Fillings include cold cuts from the Emilia Romagna region in Northern Italy, smoked salmon, tuna mousse and all types of cheese. You’ll find no flaccid, flavourless mozzarella here, only piquant, specialty cheeses like pecorino and scarmorza, all imported from Italy.
I went three times in four days.
The Raffo ($7.50) fast became a favourite, combining tangy pecorino with spicy salami and rocket as well as Sandro’s homemade bell pepper sauce. The Guily ($7.50) oozed buffalo mozzarella, the creamier, more flavoursome cousin of the original. Thin slices of smoky parma ham were the ideal complement.
Then there was the Mau ($6.50): grilled onions meet crispy glazed pork sausages with a well-cooked barbeque crunch and as much bite as its nearly-namesake. I also tried the Alby ($6.50), with smoked scamorza and perfect parma. The portion size suited me fine, though my hungrier American companions complained.
But even they were satisfied after the complimentary dessert: little plastic canapé spoons loaded with mango mousse and yoghurt and topped with a sprinkle of brown sugar.
Still not had enough? Luckily for you, doors stay open until 9pm, and panini make the perfect party food. In De Lucia’s words, “you really become a panini lover, don’t you?”
You can find Da Sandro Panini Bar at #162 Eo Street 63. Open from 11.30am to 9pm, closed on Mondays.