We drove fast across the island to Syracuse, where we’d be spending the fourth and final night of our Sicilian vacation. As we approached the Eastern coast, Mt. Etna appeared to the left, its snow-capped top looming like a great cloud or a glacier floating above the towns below. The choice of which way to turn at Catana came down to the following: a beer in a nice town on the hillside of Etna, or a sandwich at Caseificio Borderi in Syracuse before it closed at 4pm. Needless to say the sandwich won. Imagine the heartbreak when we finally arrived (“on time,” at 3:30 pm) to the completely deserted Ortigia market and were told they had just run out of bread. It took me about 2 hours of walking around Syracuse with a long face, as Ben attempted to cheer me up with beer and jokes, to fully recover from the disappointment.
It was already quite warm and sunny the next morning, when we packed up the car for Noto, where we would be lunching at Caffe Sicilia before our visit to Occhipinti in Vittoria. Although quite keen to save my appetite for Corrado Assenza’s cassata, I was already starving. We had made the enormous and embarrassingly rookie mistake of eating at a seafood restaurant on a Monday and I ended up leaving completely untouched an enormous mound of soggy fried fish, limp shrimp and squid, which had clearly all been frozen before. As we drove around Tuesday morning, watching the city wake and stretch its limbs for a new day, it became clear that we would not be leaving without trying that sandwich.
The Ortigia Market is the place to be on a Tuesday morning in Siracusa. Even near the parking lot, there are vendors selling the just-caught wiggling best of the Mediterranean – fresh fish with candy-red gills, squid and octopus of all sizes, clams, mussels and oysters, sea urchins with spines still moving as they are sliced open with a pair of scissors. And to accompany all that, a rainbow of produce stands – the lushest tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, white and purple cauliflower, massive artichokes and monstrous cucuzza longa. The color of the strawberries and the prickly pear cactus fruit, the smell of those lemons and oranges… A luxury unmatched and a truly humbling sight to behold.
Anyway, tucked away between these vendors is Caseificio Borderi. They have an outside area that dips into the market, where they sell their unbelievable ricotta and tricotta, the latter graced with a caramelized toast around the edges, along with gigantic mounds of fresh and smoked mozzarella, various types of provolone, Pecorino primo sale, Ragusano blocks, pretty little bundles of Caciovallo, etc. As you enter, you behold a case that you maybe have only witnessed in your dreams. A beautiful selection of Italian charcuterie, including the thickest trunk of mortadella I have ever seen. A mess of colorful olives, bright red roasted peppers (the real peperoni) but fresh things too right from the market. Heaven on earth.
Trying not to be too overwhelmed, we got in line and nervously waited for the curly-haired sandwich man, who I later creeped on and found out is named Gaetano Gangemi, to look up at us. When he finally did we pointed at the sandwiches he had just finished making and said, “Something like that. That’s perfect.” This isn’t the kind of place where you start listing the fillings you want. You go there and see and want it all and leave it up to him in the end. “You trust me?” he asked and we nodded, very relieved that ordering would go so smoothly.
And so he got started. Two big loaves of Sicilian sesame-crusted bread, sliced in two and lain open on the prep line. A drizzle of olive oil and generous amounts of fresh lemon juice squeezed onto each. Fresh tomatoes on one, sun-dried tomatoes on the other. The first layer of cheese come next. Jiggly slices of fresh mozzarella on one, a mess of stracciatella di buffala on the other. One gets a mess of greens and some hard cheese grated on. He grabs the mortadella, slices two gigantic pieces and lays them flat on the line. Into the center he pipettes little bundles of fresh ricotta, which he then drizzles with honey, tops with de-pitted olives and rolls up into a kind of mortadella-crepe to lay over the sandwich as yet another layer. The other gets 24-month aged, seasoned Parma ham. Greens go in there too at one point. Altogether it took something like 10 minutes for him to make the thing, during which time we stood there, jaws on the floor, cheerfully ‘Gram-ing the entire experience. He wrapped the sandwiches up, sliced them in two, and as he handed them over the counter, they seemed to double in size. We paid for them. They were 5 euros each.
Walking down market street, we unwrapped our sandwiches and dug in, becoming paralyzed after each bite by the flavor, and coming to a full stop in the middle of this crowded place. I honestly couldn’t choose between the two. One spilled forth a stupid amount of fresh, juicy mozzarella and stracciatella whose clean cream flavor is one I will never forget. This provided the best canvas for the briny umami of the sundried toms, the slight bitterness of the olives, the earthy, salty and complex harmony of flavors brought by the prosciutto. The slices of plump tomato offered fabulous texture and hydrated each bite with its sweet juice. And around the crusty edges, the grainy ricotta spread over the bread, salty and creamy and absolutely wonderful.
The mortadella sandwich was even more complex and quite difficult to pry out of Ben’s hands long enough for a bite. He too seemed completely captivated by his sandwich, thoroughly enjoying what was for both of us the happiest moment of the trip. The mortadella itself was like butter, the perfect textural contrast to crispy lettuce, both mounted on a base of the same juicy mozzarella. The combination of ricotta, honey and bitter olive inside was absolute perfection, making for an incredibly complex compilation of textures and flavors.
After finishing up half of each sandwich we wrapped them and hid them in a shady area of our car before heading off the Noto. The sandwiches resurfaced several times throughout the day, offering the necessary sustenance before our tasting at Occhipinti and before the 3-hour drive back to the Palermo airport. Leaving Syracuse (or generally Sicily, for that matter) without trying this sandwich would have been a mistake. A fact I’m grateful to have realized just in time.