Nico’s. Hector’s. Rusty’s. Rocco’s. Frankie’s. Kelso’s. Stan’s. Melbourne wasn’t short on sandwiches when Stef Condello decided to go all in on his dream in 2022, but it was short of fresh panini driven by premium smallgoods and judicious restraint.

One year on, Stefanino Panino is the hit he sensed it might become – a bedrock of the Brunswick East lunch community that sells out almost daily from Tuesday to Saturday.

On the eve of the shop’s first birthday, we caught up with primary-school teacher turned panino prince of Lygon Street, Stef Condello, to chat all things sandwich.

Stefanino Panino is best known for Italian leaning, made to order, fully customisable panini utilising some of the best local produce available. 

How did Stefanino Panino first come to be?I was transitioning out of full-time primary school teaching and beginning to work at the institutional high-end butcher, Donati’s Fine Meats, slicing meats, packing and delivering orders and serving customers. I was also in the interesting position of having access to a vacant shopfront in the warehouse where the band I play in (Big Yawn) rehearses and records. My mates encouraged me to use the shopfront for some sort of food offering, knowing that my two true passions are music and food; how cool it would be to have both things under the one roof. 

I combined the unique Lygon Street shopfront opportunity with my newfound slicing skills to open a limited, made-to-order panino shop which has steadily grown in offering and volume over the last 12 months. 

How has the Stefanino Panino as a business grown since then? Initially it was just me, my mum, Diana, helping two days a week, and a rotating roster of people who were artist residents of the warehouse (photographers, designers etc) on the tools in the shop.  

This has now grown to a solid crew of hospitality people– mainly customers who expressed interest in joining the team. I have yet to advertise any positions and prefer it that way. I look for people who show up – who know the product and space as customers first. I also look for people who are genuinely passionate about food,with down-to-earth attitudes and people who are detail-oriented, and are able to work under pressure with a room full of hungry people looking on (our tiny kitchen space is fully exposed). 

The business began as a small sole trader operation and has grown to a company with seven casual staff rotating through the week. We began selling 50 panini per day– moving to 60, to 80, to 100 and now we float around 120-200 Natural Tucker ciabatti plus approximately 10 Strada gluten-free panini per day.  

My favourite sandwich is the bologna (mortadella, stracciatella, marinated green olives, pickled peppers, EVOO). This was a go-to sandwich growing up – however the stracc is a definite upgrade from the less-gourmet (ahem,bogan) Philadelphia cream cheese we used to run back in the ’90s at home. 

I am celebrating Stefanino Panino’s one-year anniversary by marking down all panini to $11, releasing a limited run of red SP windcheaters and hosting an intimate in-shop solo organ performance by Big Yawn band mate E. Bobby G. I’ll also head to Bali for five nights with my girlfriend in August sometime for a quick getaway – with the plan to come back to town round and brown. 

Some challenges I’ve faced have been selling out too early in the day and predicting volumes. It’s kind of ridiculous to have a lunch offering that runs out by 12.30-1.00pm. So, what do you do? Bump the numbers up – then people don’t show up because it’s raining or whatever! So, you’re left with 20–30 rolls at the end of the day and have to give the bread away to neighbouring businesses (I refuse to throw food away). It’s still a challenge, but I suppose selling out is a good problem to have – provided it isn’t too early in the day. Another challenge is physically working in the very limited space that our kitchen affords us. Knocking out 150-plus panini in our space is something I am proud of, but it is challenging. 

My greatest supporters have been the wonderful locals of Brunswick East, from local businesses to people working from home. From day one I felt truly welcomedby the Lygon Street community.

An unexpected new skill I’ve learnt is remembering people’s names and orders. Probably linked to my teaching days where I had to remember 120-plus Year 5 students’ names. Also, I’d like to think my knife skills have improved too. 

The piece of equipment I never knew I needed is a meat slicer that is a) reliable, b) easy to disassemble and deep clean and c) compact enough to fit our tiny space, yet large enough to slice large-diameter smallgoods like prosciutto cotto and mortadella. The search continues, however I feel I am getting close. 

If someone asked me for advice on opening their new venues, I would tell them to limit your offering. Do less – but what you do do, make it the best version of that thing around. And make sure the offering is something that is very important to you. 

I’m most proud of turning a seemingly dead space into a vibrant lunch spot and community. I struggle at times to acknowledge the success of the business, as is the case with most sole-trading entities with eyes on the future, however I’m proud to have brought an authentic, reasonably priced lunch option to a portion of Lygon Street that previously had a servo as its only lunch-time option.  

I am also proud to be the place where people first try and enjoy seemingly intimidating salumi such as presswurst, coppa, mortadella and the like. 

This final question was asked by last month’s featured business owner, Audrey Allard of Holy Sugar: How do you switch off? Having a built-in limitation helps (a limit to the number of rolls per day). Once the bread is gone, you can pack down and go home. But to truly switch off from panino-mode some decent couch time with my girlfriend and cat is a requirement. Then, into a couple beers and watching the footy with mates, and a good meal and a bit of studio time with the Yawn boys tends to sort me right out. Also, like I told the kids at school, be sure to put the devices down at a certain time and tell yourself it can wait till tomorrow; it’s a panino shop – not a hospital!

Stefanino Panino, 255 Lygon St, Brunswick East, open 10am till sold out Tue-Fri and 11am till sold out Sat, @stefanino.panino