Food & Drink

You Gotta Try This: An Italian restaurant’s pork belly panini has roots in Vietnam

This is “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Comment below or email reporter Benjy Egel at

Like so many Italian sandwiches, Adamo’s pork belly panini can trace its core ingredient back to an unlucky pig. It’s the rest of the stuffing that veers away from red-and-white checkered tablecloths and into the misunderstood F-word of the kitchen: fusion.

There’s tender fat from the meat, yes, but also an acidic jolt from pickled papaya and fennel and sweet heat from spicy honey and housemade jalapeno aioli. It’s closer to chef Polo Adamo’s favorite species of sandwich, one with roots in a former French colony by the South China Sea, than the capocollo or lampredotto found between bread in Florentian food stands.

“Banh mi, in my opinion, is probably the best sandwich in the history of sandwiches,” Adamo said. “I just think the ratio of acid to fat to spice is perfect, especially with the herbs that clean your mouth out a little bit so you’re not weighed down and still feeling light afterwords.”

Traditional banh mis are filled with jalapeno slices, mayonnaise, Maggi sauce, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro and some sort of sliced pork. The sandwich was born when the French introduced baguettes to Vietnam during the 19th century and had become a common Saigon street food by the time Ho Chi Minh declared independence in 1945.

Adamo’s version ditches mayonnaise for an aioli made from roasted jalapenos, egg yolks, garlic, Dijon mustard, olive oil and lemon juice. All the fruits and vegetables in the $12, lunch-only sandwich come from Sacramento-based distributor Produce Express.

Instead of daikon and carrots, Adamo pickles sliced papaya and fennel stalks in a mixture of apple cider vinegar, water, sugar, salt and coriander seeds, the last of which complement their parent cilantro leaves in the sandwich.

The pork bellies are roasted for six to seven hours at 250 degrees, quickly deep-fried, then slathered in Lienert’s Honey, spiced with habanero and Fresno chile seeds. About four or five slices join the aioli, basil, cilantro, papaya and fennel between slices of Acme Bread’s deli roll, similar to ciabatta but with a firmer crust.

Each sandwich comes with a choice of salad – red leaf and romaine lettuce, spinach and mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), topped with pickled red onions, preserved Roma tomatoes and red wine vinaigrette – or what Adamo claims are the best fries in Sacramento. By frying them once, freezing them and frying again to order, the hand-cut fries form a crispy exterior while maintaining their fluffy white inside.

“They’re dangerous,” Adamo said. “Once you start eating them, it’s hard to stop,”

A commonly used cut throughout East Asia, pork belly (or ba chị in Vietnamese) has been a favorite of Sacramento chefs for the last decade or so. At least 30 midtown or downtown restaurants offer it in some form, from Zocalo’s chicarrons to Biba’s insalata de porchetta to Sauced’s sliders.

That ubiquitousness meant Adamo didn’t have to worry about customers, some of whom are apprehensive of unfamiliar dishes like branzino, being reluctant to order a foreign cut. At the same time, he purposely didn’t label the dish as a banh mi because of preconceived notions of what that sandwich would entail, he said.

Adamo originally thought of serving the sandwich with peaches, and the stone fruits will likely replace the papaya once in season, he said. A light went off when he attended a beer tasting that paired pork with an ale containing papaya notes, leading to the sandwich’s menu debut in February.

Adamo grew up in East Sacramento and graduated with an associate’s degree from American River College’s culinary arts program after a short stint at Sacramento State. He worked at Chipotle and Selland’s Market Cafe before taking a pastry job at Restaurant Gary Danko, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco where he eventually became poissonnier.

He returned to Sacramento in 2016, two years after his sister Chiara and father John opened the family’s namesake restaurant at 2107 P St. The family also owns and operates Midtown Laundry next door as well as the building housing both businesses, and plans to open a pizzeria called 12th Street Pizza at the corner of 12th and D streets.

If you go

2107 P St., (916) 440-9611


Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.