Before there were panini, there were ToasTites – at least, that’s the way it happened in my house. A ToasTite (also “toas tite,”as two words or with a hyphen) is a grilled sandwich maker. To the best of my knowledge, they originated in the 1930s and 1940s and were made to cook sandwiches over a hot, open flame. The earliest models have round toasting plates and long handles, to keep valuable body parts away from the fire as the food cooks. My model – the same I’ve used since childhood – is a slightly newer electric ToasTite maker produced by Salton and there is no need for a roaring fire to use it.
It may sound like a primitive panini press, but the ToasTite is an entirely different beast. Instead of simply pressing the sandwich bread and its contents together, the ToasTite actually seals the sandwich. The edges of ToasTite makers, both the oldest models and my own, are designed to press down on the layers of bread and flatten them without flattening the inside of the sandwich. This creates a pocket full of cheese, meat, veggies, etc. to enjoy. The bread gets toasted evenly and the sealed edges are thin and crispy, especially if you stick with using sandwich-type breads (the kind that make good grilled cheese sandwiches, as opposed to crustier panini breads) for the ToasTites.
Since my electric model (makes 4 triangular sandwiches) is decidedly not in fashion, the only source for one just like it is an antique store or an older relative. You can still find the manual, fire-powered ToasTite makers at camping stores (often sold as “pie irons“).