Sapna vs. 5th & Wine: You Say Panini, I Say Panino

International foods have found their way into the heart of American (and Phoenician) cuisine, from sushi rolls and ramen bowls to gelato and panini. For this week's battle, we visited two places with international flavor -- one a tiny vegetarian friendly cafe owned by a self-professed world traveler and the other a chic wine lounge in Old Town Scottsdale.

Whose panini would reign supreme? Read on to find out.

In One Corner: Sapna Café
1301 Grand Ave. in Phoenix

To brie or not to brie, that is the question.

Sapna Café is an adorable -- albeit tiny -- little wedge of a restaurant tucked inside the historic Bragg's Pie Factory building in Phoenix. Owned by former Swedish chef Ana Borrajo, Sapna (the nickname Ana picked up in India) is bright and modern, with white walls and simple white Ikea tables, walls of windows lined with warm colored curtains and funky art on the walls.

It has a very urban European feel, despite the fans that are more than necessary in the summer heat. 

Sapna focuses on quick, healthy fare, with options ranging from non-meat quesadillas and gypsy stew to scrambled eggs, panini, pasta and salads. I ordered the brie, pear and walnut panini (technically panino or panino imbottito since there's only one and it's stuffed) and it arrived in short order, looking lovely on a white plate with a fresh green side salad.

I bit into the pressed sandwich and was pleased with the perfect crispness of the bread and the way it held together like a panino should. The brie was a mild and salty background flavor, mainly existing to "glue" the sandwich together. The arugula was crisp and slightly bitter, the walnuts adding a nice crunchy texture and the thinly sliced apple a hint of sweetness.

"It's a little bland," remarked my dining companion, a seasoned chef with decades of experience. "The brie isn't a strong flavor, so it needs some chutney or compote."

I agreed with her assessment. The sandwich was extremely well balanced, with base, bitter, sweet and nutty flavors represented. But it needed a little zing; perhaps a side of sweet-sour chutney or a vinegar-based sauce? Next to my friend's veggie sandwich, which was dripping with savory dressing and packed with flavor, the panino did taste a little wimpy. Still, I'd eat it again if I was craving a mild dish.

In the Other Corner: 5th and Wine
7051 E. 5th Ave. in Scottsdale

5th and Wine is a relatively new wine bar on the corner of 5th and Marshall Way in Old Town Scottsdale. It's a cavernous space, with beautiful wood-trussed ceilings, a cozy leather conversation area, a large wooden bar with red leather stools and a fun chalkboard listing the monthly calendar and wine specials. The tree-shaded back patio would've been an ideal lunch spot if it hadn't been hella hot during our visit. Oh, well. Maybe in the fall.

ote: I found myself humming "one of these things is not like the other" as I stared at the garish neon dog paintings hanging on this classy spot's walls. The colors are like an ice pick to the eye and the huge dog faces are off-putting if you're not a pet lover. What was the designer thinking??)

Another friend and I ordered the prosciutto and brie panini with butternut squash soup for our side. The dish was nicely presented, with four quarters of perfectly toasted sandwich and a leaf-shaped dollop of sour cream on the rich orange soup.

The panino was more like a regular sandwich on grilled bread than the gooey grilled cheese-like concoction we're used to, but from what I hear that's true in a lot of the paninoteca in Italy. I bit into the fat sandwich and was pleased by the explosion of different flavors. The brie was silky, with a slight ammonia bite.

The prosciutto was expectedly salty and flavorful, though there wasn't enough of it to combat the extremely strong bitterness of the arugula and the potent balsamic vinegar. "It's really good," said my companion, "but it tastes better when I scrape off the arugula and balsamic."

He had a point, though without the arugula and dressing the panino would lose its complexity. This one was a hard call. Perhaps the balance of both ingredients just needed to be better, so that the blander cheese and thin slices of prosciutto could be the stars. After all, this is a brie and prosciutto panini, not an arugula and balsamic one. 

Despite the slight imbalance, the sandwich was still savory and appealing, especially when accompanied by the delicious squash soup.

The winner: Sapna's gets a slight edge for a better balance of flavors and a cheaper price. You can tuck a side of chutney in your purse, but you can't suck the balsamic out of toasted bread.      

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