A simple dictum to find a good place to eat is: look for the crowds. People vote with their feet. In Siracusa’s Ortigia market, on the island of Sicily, one small store will attract your attention, as you’ll wonder why so many people are crowded around a counter. They’re watching a man named Andrea Borderi, who is the best sandwich-maker in the world.
A bold claim. Yet watch him for just a few minutes, not only how he works the crowd, engaging with everyone and handing out samples. Not only the irresistible ingredients in front of him, including cheese he makes himself. Note how he so very clearly loves what he’s doing and is precisely in his element, a man born to perform this task. It’s watching a master, a living treasure, someone in exactly the right place, a performance artist who leaves you with food. Someone this compelling couldn’t make anything less than a bang-up sandwich.
Having grown up in Syracuse, New York, I always wanted to see the original, Siracusa, on the south-east corner of Sicily. It’s an old city, 2,700 years, founded by the Greeks on a small island called Ortygia right, right off the main island, so close you throw a stone across. The city well outgrew Ortygia and is now well spread out, but its heart is still Ortygia, and that’s where you should stay and do most of your hanging out.
The market there is on Via de Benedictis, near the north-east corner of Ortygia. Ortygia is not large; you’d run across it anyway. The market is also not large, but it’s seriously delightful, with many pleasures. To me, all markets should include prepared food stands and other snacks. What’s the point of looking at so much food if you can’t indulge?
Nota Bene: The small island that has the heart of Siracusa is spelled Ortigia in Italian, but most people write it as Ortygia when not writing Italian (like me, right now). However, when referring to the market there, non-Italian people write “Ortigia Market” for some reason, so I’ll follow this convention. Nobody ever checks with me about these things.
Ortigia Market doesn’t have as much prepared foods as some other markets, such as those in Palermo, but it has plenty of places to nosh. One stand was selling raw oysters, with a free glass of wine tossed in. More conventional cafés were around the area, and I highly recommend the deli-like store called Fratelli Burgio at the end of the narrow market street.
Andrea Borderi at work, and play
But right next to that is our sandwich-maker. He has a very small store where one can buy deli-like products inside, by pushing your way to the front and grabbing a number. Outside is a short counter where he holds court with the sandwich-making, and the narrow space in front of him and on the alley outside is always packed with spectators.
The name of the establishment is Caseificio Borderi. It’s on Via de Benedictis #6, but you’ll spot it. Borderi is the family name, a family that was in the olive oil business until 1930, when they started making cheese. “Caseificio” means cheese house. Don Pasquale Borderi was the family patriarch who started their current trends in cheese, and his son Andrea Borderi in 1970 refined the method. Andrea is the old man at the counter outside doing the sandwich show today. His own son Gaetano, and perhaps his daughter, are in the business as well.
The cheese-making business has been good to the Borderi family, but I don’t think they’d be much more than locally-known cheese mongers without the sandwich showmanship of Andrea. Their cheese certainly is noteworthy, especially the tricotta. Ricotta cheese means “re-cooked” in Italian, but Andrea’s is tricotta, thrice-cooked.
The interior of Caseificio Borderi
So let’s get to a sandwich, a panino. (Yes, panini has a singular form.) Our maestro Andrea will start by grabbing the bun, the short loaf of bread. After cutting it lengthwise and opening it up, he’ll scrape out some of the bread in the center of each half, to make a trench in each so that the ingredients have more room.
He almost always starts with chopped sun-dried tomatoes as the base. I didn’t ask if they were truly dried in the sun or not. The next step is laying out some meat slices as a platform, then piling flavors on top of them. Garlic paste (by the smell of it), onion jam, mozzarella cream, and pesto with pistachios are all possibilities.
More solid additions could be marinated mushrooms, spicy pepper caponata, pickled vegetables, and very often a mini-salad of chopped greens, mint, red onions, and fresh tomatoes.
That meat could be capicola, prosciutto, speck, mortadella, salami, or some type of ham. The cheeses used are mozzarella, that ricotta or tricotta, provolone, and hard cheeses such as pecorino and ragusa. These are only what I could identify, and (mostly) from what the crowd told me. You may get one or two types of meat, but he likes to mix up the cheese, probably giving you three types.
The cheese has many variations. There’s mozzarella and smoked mozzarella. There’s ricotta and smoked ricotta and ricotta salata, which is salted and crumbly.
In the market on the day I was there, I watched him cutting an orange into slices and wrapping slices of mortadella around them. He tends to make a packet out of the meats and the flavorings, a torpedo shape, and then places it inside the hollowed-out bread.
Other flavorings are of course olive oil, lemon juice, and oregano. He keeps a large bundle of dried oregano and just squeezes it to crumble some over your sandwich.
Ask for some of that tricotta on your sandwich, and ask him how he makes it, if you dare. He’ll be very happy to talk about it, and he won’t care much whether you understand his Italian or not.
In between all this sandwich-making, he’ll cut up some cheese, a handful of pieces, and pass them out to the customers waiting in front of him. Then he’ll pause to crack a joke, or tease a young boy standing there. He knows most of the crowd there. He’s having a blast, just the sheer joy of doing what he loves, and he’s infectious.
A tricotta package, to go
I witnessed people requesting certain ingrediants on their sandwich, but there’s a fine line between your desires and Andrea being in charge. When it’s your turn, he likely won’t ask you for your order. He’ll just start making a sandwich, perhaps checking with you a bit. This is when you have to lean in and tell him the meat (or lack of it) and cheeses you’re interested in. He’ll likely go with what you want, but as he’s clearly the expert and you are certainly not, you may get what he thinks you should get. If you’re flexible, just give him free reign. It can’t be bad; it’s simply impossible.
Andrea and Caseificio Borderi do much more than sandwiches. You can get deli-style service inside the shop, just getting meat or cheese and such, but it’s so much more fun with Andrea out front, and he does various things besides sandwiches. He’ll take one of his housemade ricotta rounds and jazz it up, putting it in in a container for you with some of the aforementioned accoutrements, chopped salad, spices, and jams, for you to enjoy later. He’ll lay out small antipasti platters for you, wrapping small cuts of meat around flavor bomb ingredients such as the onion jams and ricotta. If you can talk to him, you’re in.
Antipasti platter, in the making
You can also ask (inside) about tasting platers, starting from about €10, something you can eat there at the marekt, at the tables across the aisle from the deli. They have wine as well.
Because of Andrea’s popularity, you will need to wait for a sandwich. People have reported anywhere from 30 minutes to more than an hour. For just a sandwich. It will be huge, perhaps feeding two of you.
And the cost, perhaps you are wondering? As of August 2017, that sandwich from the gods was just €5.
If there’re are better sandwich-makers in the world, I want to know where they are.
Name: Caseificio Borderi. Via de Benedictis 6
They’re open 07:00 to 16:00 every day except Sunday, when the entire market is closed.