Pan Handler

Caffe Milano is home to Tucson's most successful panini.

For many cities, the downtown area is a hub of commerce, an epicenter that acts as ground zero for assimilation. Many urban downtown areas also provide some kind of odd historic strata that illustrates various layering of city intent--misdirected growth spurts, the occasional short-lived rallying cry toward gentrification, and the inevitable odd artifact and survivor. Tucson is no exception.

Although our downtown area languishes in many respects, we do claim many odd and curious establishments that add up to the quirky, defiant feel that keeps our downtown from becoming truly gentrified. Tucson has many winning characteristics, and one of them is that despite itself, downtown continues to be slightly disheveled. The word tawdry comes to mind, as do the words "wanna be historic," but what rarely springs to mind is the word Italian.

What a delight, then, to find Caffe Milano tucked in at the end of a long row of walk-in cafes on Congress Street. Despite being a small venue, there is a welcoming feel to the space. Most of the business is brisk walk-in that appears to be composed of many die-hard regulars. Standing in line you'll hear people discussing their favorite items, should they make a change, yes, no, yes, no, and then they collapse into laughter with the gregarious owner, Carlo Borella, who welcomes everyone into his shop as if he were inviting them into his home.

A snowbird of rather exotic plumage, Carlo Borella visited family in Tucson for 11 years before he finally decided to give up Milan's cold winters. Opting to practice his craft in Tucson, Borella opened the doors of Caffe Milano two years ago. Judging by the boisterous and happy clients, the eatery clearly is a success.

The diners seem to appreciate not only the quality of authentic ingredients and preparations, but also the jovial and friendly personal touch that Carlo places on greeting his clients, usually by name. Even if it is your first visit to Caffe Milano, you'll be warmly greeted, and time permitting, chatted up about your own preferences. You'll feel not only welcomed, but also completely informed about any terms that might require clarification.

In Italy the word panini is synonymous with sandwich. Panini originated as a snacking tradition in Italy, a morsel to nibble with a glass of wine, a small snack to hold you over between meals. Not surprisingly, an overgrown version of panini has become somewhat of a rage in America, meeting our need to fill our half-hour lunch break with something not only nourishing but somewhat indulgent.

Good bread is crucial for the success of any panini, and Caffe Milano serves fresh-baked breads of a local Italian bakery. Italian towns, no matter how small, always sport at least one panificio, a bakery devoted entirely to bread. Since this is Tucson, Borella went to great efforts to find a local Italian bakery to supply him with breads he feels replicate those of his homeland. You can order your panini on focaccia, cibatta or Tuscan style bread. If you're uncertain what might make the best match, simply ask and you'll receive a torrent of advice.

Offering 13 regular panini, plus some rotating daily specials, these are sandwiches worth stopping for. The Duomo ($5.75) piles prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers and pesto on a warmly pressed focaccia. The tender prosciutto with the creamy mozzarella is a classic match. Add the sweet roasted peppers and an earthy basil pesto and you've got a sandwich you'll savor.

The San Babila ($4.95) is a vegetarian option that provides plenty of flavor and zip. Served with provolone and brie, this sandwich is spiked with green chile (canned) and lovely wedges of fresh tomato. Somehow this rises way above the category of simply a cheese sandwich, probably because of the lavish portions and balance in flavors.

Should you choose to eat lightly, there are plenty of salads made to order. The Salad Niçoise ($5.95) provided a pleasant surprise since the chunks of tuna were fresh, and lightly dressed with olive oil and herbs. This set the tone for all the flavors in the salad--a tumble of greens, steamed potato, strips of provolone, black olives (alas, not Niçoise) and flecks of corn. An ample plate, this salad not only tastes indulgent, but won't break the calorie bank and leave you scrambling to book your next lunch break at the gym.

Yet should you want something a bit heartier, try the Antipasto Milano ($6.50). Served as a hearty vegetable and meat plate, you'll find the classic choices in rustic, pure flavors. The Genoa salami and prosciutto are top quality. The additions are brie, provolone, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, olives and cubed steamed potato. The portions are in balance, and the salad isn't overwhelming in size. Light, pure flavors highlight one another and leave you feeling nourished.

We found the panini so good we wanted to repeat our visit just to make sure that the sandwiches were always so satisfying. Our second visit found the same friendly faces, bustling room and more winning features. The San Vittore ($4.75) has mortadella sausage crusted with pistachio, Milano salad, tomato and lettuce to make a succulent and filling sandwich.

The Brera ($4.75) served on Tuscan bread was loaded up with black forest ham, provolone, artichoke hearts, roasted pepper and black olive tapenade. These bright, simple flavors invite you to slow your lunch break down. If you close your eyes and drift for a moment, you'll find yourself buoyed up by the happy babble of Italian in the kitchen, the wafting smell of strong espresso, the clamor of happy customers. And perhaps for a moment, you might be transported to some dim happy memory of Italy, or maybe your dream of what Italy is all about. Not bad for being in downtown Tucson on a half-hour lunch break.

With the heavy foot traffic, you can always call your order in ahead. Should you drop in for an early morning latte and a pastry to go, or a dreamy lunch where you moon about that fabulous Italian vacation, you'll find a comforting niche right in the belly of the beast, our own dilapidated version of downtown.

Caffe Milano. 46 W. Congress St. 628-1601. Open: Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. No Bar. Cash and checks only. Menu items: $1.75- $5.95.