“Fast Food,” Italian-Style

A few years back, a popular fast food restaurant opened in the town of Altamura in Italy's Puglia region. It was put out of business one year later by the unlikeliest of foes, a small local bakery that sold a large slice of artisanal focaccia for the same price as a hamburger. While there are many successful outposts of American fast food chains operating throughout Italy’s larger cities, this type of David-versus-Goliath victory is a heartening reminder that quick meals for people on the go can still be good, local and not mass-produced.

While the Slow Food Movement (the goal is to combat fast food and preserve the posterity of their cultural cuisines), and big sit-down family dinners are popular in Italy, the country also has a long tradition of what can be considered “fast food.” The difference is that they still incorporate the same ideals as more traditional Italian food: quality ingredients and non-processed foods.

In Italy, the most famous of these delicious handcrafted “fast foods” is pizza. Naples is the birthplace of pizza, where it is cooked in wood-burning ovens that are so hot it only takes 90 seconds to cook an entire pizza. Bakeries throughout Rome sell Pizza al Taglia, which means “pizza by the slice.” These pizzas are baked in large rectangular trays and sold by weight. The three classic variations in Rome are Pizza Bianco (topped with just olive oil and salt), Pizza Rosso (topped with only tomato sauce) and Margarita (topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil) but you can get them with other toppings also.

In America, we associate panini with grilled sandwiches, but panino is actually just the Italian word for sandwich, and they can be hot or cold. Along the Autostrade (highways) of Italy, there are stops that sell fabulous panini made with quality bread and stuffed with wonderful regional cured meats, cheeses and vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant and peppers.

Flat breads such as focaccia are prevalent throughout Italy, and are often split open and stuffed with meat, cheese or vegetables for a heartier meal. In coastal towns, booths and stands sell fried fish for snacks. Street foods are abundant in large cities, one of the most popular being Sicilian Arancine (rice balls stuffed with tomato sauce, meat and peas).

There will probably always be a market for industrialized fast food, even in Italy. However, the pride that Italian people take in locally produced food and culinary traditions will probably prevent it from becoming as common as it has become in America.

Pizza Panini


These panini are a hybrid of two of Italy's most popular fast foods, pizza and panini. Just like a pizza, you can customize them by adding your favorite toppings: pepperoni, prosciutto, anchovies, etc. If you don't have access to good focaccia, you can substitute good Italian bread, such as ciabatta.


  • 4 squares of focaccia
  • 1/2 cup Contadina® Tomato Sauce
  • 4 oz. fresh mozzarella, sliced
  • 4 large basil leaves, chopped
  • 2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

If using a panini grill:

  1. Preheat the grill according to manufacturer's instructions.
  2. Slice the focaccia horizontally.
  3. Spread a thin layer of the tomato sauce on the bottom halves of the focaccia.
  4. Arrange the slices of mozzarella on the sauce and scatter the chopped basil on top.
  5. Drizzle with the extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then cover with the top halves of the bread.
  6. Place the panini in the grill, close the top and grill until the cheese is melted.

If using a stove top grill or skillet:

  1. Slice the focaccia horizontally.
  2. Spread a thin layer of the tomato sauce on the bottom halves of the focaccia.
  3. Arrange the slices of mozzarella on the sauce and scatter the chopped basil on top.
  4. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then cover with the top halves of the bread.
  5. Place the panini in the pan or skillet over medium-high heat, and weigh down with a heavy pan.
  6. Grill, turning once, until the cheese is melted.

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This re-creation of the Arancine you would get from a street vendor in Sicily is a great appetizer to make in advance for a party. You can make the balls, refrigerate them overnight, and then fry them the day of the party. Or you can fry them ahead of time and just reheat them in a low oven until crispy and warmed through.

Makes 12 Arancine


  • 2 cups of Italian Arborio rice
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup grated Pecorino cheese


  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped finely
  • 8 oz. ground beef
  • 1 cup Contadina® Tomato Sauce
  • 1/2 cup of peas, fresh or frozen

To Assemble

  • 4 large eggs beaten
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 cups breadcrumbs
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  1. Boil the rice in lightly salted water until tender.
  2. Drain the rice, place it in a bowl; stir in the eggs and Pecorino cheese.
  3. Heat olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat.
  4. Add onions and cook until onion is soft and translucent (about 10 minutes).
  5. Add ground beef and cook until beef is browned (about 10 minutes).
  6. Add tomato sauce, bring to a simmer and turn heat to low.
  7. Cook for 10 minutes, then add peas and cook for 5 more minutes.
  8. Place the flour, 4 beaten eggs and the breadcrumbs in three separate plates.
  9. Allow rice and filling to cool; then take two tablespoons of rice in one hand, make a hole using your finger and stuff it with the filling.
  10. Cover the filling with more rice, sealing the edges and molding it into a ball about 2-1/2 to 3 inches in diameter.
  11. Roll the ball into the flour, then the egg and finally the breadcrumbs, making sure not to leave any spots uncovered.
  12. Place the ball on a rack to dry and repeat with the remaining ingredients.
  13. Line a tray with paper towels and pour about 3 inches of vegetable oil in a deep heavy saucepan.
  14. Heat the oil to a temperature of 375°F and fry the arancine, a few at a time, until they are golden brown.
  15. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain.

Buon appetito (enjoy the meal)!

Click here to view and print this recipe.