Oi Polloi

In Search of the Sandwich Boys

Published: Fri Sep 21 2018

We’ve worked with Superga on some rather nice, Autumn-friendly versions of their 2390 military pump. More news on these very soon, but until then, here’s a look at another Italian phenomenon… the Paninari. 

A lot of people reading this will probably be familiar with the Paninari — a band of young and carefree Italians with a penchant for fast food, dirt bikes and slick garb who populated the piazzas of Milan and Rome in the mid-80s. A European take on the American dream, the Mediterranean cousins of the casuals lug soled Timberlands… Best Company sweatshirts… technicolour ski-jackets… Levi’s jeans… Superga pumps… Burlington socks… burgers…

But what else was involved? Where did they come from? Where are they now? Was there more to it all than just wearing fancy clothes? For a subculture referenced, namechecked and generally nattered on about so often, there’s very little information out there beyond a few photos and a few old magazine articles.

Here’s a fairly loose attempt at trying to fill in some of the gaps.

Whilst the Paninari (and their female counterparts - the Paninare) were a product of the 1980s, it might be said that the seeds were planted back in 1976, when a decision was made to allow private television channels to broadcast locally in Italy. This point might sound fairly irrelevant, but this small fact meant that by the early 80s, thousands of new television channels had popped up, filling up the hours of dead air with low-end soap operas, music television and brash action films, all shipped over from America.

Italy’s 1982 World Cup win and Reagan’s free trade push might have also played a part in this new age of confidence and Yank-influenced consumerism. 

“The teenagers wanted to be different from the classical Italian stereotype - they wanted to be cooler and international.”

Andrea Cane is the creative director for WP Lavori (one of the first places to stock things like Vans, Paraboot and Filson in Italy), and was there for the early days of Paninaro. Here’s how he saw it...

“I think that the American film industry influenced a lot of the Italian environment. Movies such as Rocky, Top Gun and Rambo were pushing the American dream into the quiet Italian family homes. Actors like Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro were wearing products that we recognized as iconic American statements.

The teenagers wanted to be different from the classical Italian stereotype. They wanted to break the rules of the previous generations, they felt powerful and fearless to risk and to try  they wanted to be cooler and international.”

This influx of Western culture offered a window into a world of flash cars and fast food that seemed a million miles away from old, historic Italy — and the youth, keen to distance themselves from their more traditional parents, hoovered it up wholesale. It wasn’t long before the influence of American television spread out from the living room and into the street.

And what better place to congregate than the burger bar the true symbol of American splendour and the modern, fast paced lifestyle these kids wanted a slice of. Tom Cruise didn’t want to spend hours slaving over the perfect pasta dish, and neither did Italy’s teens. It was around the newly opened fast food restaurants of Milan that the Paninari (an extension of ‘panino, meaning sandwich) got their name, as Andrea explains.

“The first appearance was at Al Panino — this was the place which gave the only ‘made in Italy’ subculture a name. It was the land of rich teenagers, and their only aim was to be fashionable and curated in order to be the best: it was like a challenge.”

This competitive element and love of American culture combined to create a truly unique uniform of brightly coloured ski jackets, cuffed-denim and massive cowboy belts as one-up-manship led them to seek out only the finest Western wear. Like the rockabillies that gather at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, this lot looked more ‘American’ than any real Americans.

Dirt bikes were also immensely popular, and the brightly coloured 125 scramblers from companies like Zundapp, Cagiva and Gilera offered yet another way to trump your mates in the endless competition to become ‘el gallo’ AKA the cock AKA the top boy.

Another thing worth mentioning is that for some reason the Paninari really buzzed off Walt Disney characters. This seems like a strange ingredient for a subculture juiced on Rambo and dirt bikes, but beneath all the macho stuff this lot had a real fondness for intricate embroidered effigies of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

It wasn’t long before Italian labels got in on the act. Olmes Caretti merged bright colours and outdoor imagery (and loads of ducks) for Best Company’s ultra popular sweatshirts, and Massimo Osti plucked functional detail from vintage military gear to create outerwear perfection under the C.P. Company and Stone Island names.

This obsession with image and style (and disregard for more serious matters) might all seem a bit shallow, but with Italy coming out of a long fought battle between fascism and communism, these more trivial things were a much needed relief from past tensions.

Whilst most other subcultures made at least some attempt at pretending to be political or intellectual, the Paninari, for the most part, just wanted to eat burgers, wear American clothes and talk to girls.

By the mid-80s, the style had spread from Milan and Rome out into the smaller towns and cities of Italy, and magazines with names like Wild Boys and Preppy (full of daft comics and massive down jackets) had popped up to cater for the insatiable demand for anything vaguely related to this new phenomenon.

England had also got wise to the new look from the continent, and in the August of 1986, i-D magazine ran a full article on what it termed ‘Italy’s biggest teen sensation’, complete with a full glossary of Paninaro terminology (‘faggiano’ meant ‘dickhead’, whilst a ‘ciffone’ was a ‘dreadful girl’) and a soundtrack of approved bands (including Bronski Beat and The Communards).

1986 was also the year The Pet Shop Boys immortalised the subculture in their aptly-titled synth-based stomper, ‘Paninaro’, and comedian Enzo Braschi appeared on the silver screen as a stereotypical burger-loving Paninari in Italian Fast Food (as seen below in full Moncler puffer/washed denim get-up).

It could probably be said that by the time a ‘movement’ or ‘subculture’ has got a name, a uniform and a hit song by a London synth-pop duo, it’s got too big to sustain itself, and by the late 80s things had moved on. Not only did the older devotees trade in their down jackets and El Charro belts for Gucci suits and high-powered office jobs, but American clothes, fast food and action films were no longer the exotic commodity they once were.

In the same way the branded trainer in the North West of England slowly morphed from a niche curiosity to a part of everyday life, the brash Western garments once seen as shocking to leathery-faced traditionalists had become commonplace. 

“Not only did the older devotees trade in their down jackets and El Charro belts for Gucci suits and high-powered office jobs, but American clothes, fast food and action films were no longer the exotic commodity they once were.”

But although it may be said that the scene itself had faded out by the 90s, that distinct Paninaro flavour may still be tasted to this day. Dirt bikes might have been swapped for smart phones, but the act of knocking around town in well-made, functional garb is now a truly worldwide obsession, from Milan all the way to Middleton. Burgers are pretty popular these days too.