In Search of the World’s Best Sandwich

WHEN I WAS SEVEN years old I remember opening my lunchbox one day at school and wondering what on earth had happened to my tomatoes. They didn’t look like the normal round tomato slices all the other kids had in their sandwiches. Instead, they looked shriveled and dried, like they’d curled up and died. They were also drenched in some sort of herb-infused oil that had pooled at the bottom of my sandwich and leaked out into my bag. While the rest of my class were wolfing down triangles of white bread with ham and margarine, my Mum, out of her love and infinite wisdom had thought it might be time to introduce me to the finer things in life.

I probably threw away 10kg of sundried tomatoes that year.

Fast forward 24 odd years and I’d kill for a sundried tomato over the tasteless red things we find in supermarkets these days. All this got me thinking: what makes the perfect sandwich? I’ve visited some thirty-odd countries and reckon I’ve come pretty close to finding it. In Turkey, for example, I was pleasantly surprised to learn they eat their kebabs with thick bread, almost like a hard baguette. In Japan, you can find pork katsu sandwiches with a thick brown sauce and shredded cabbage. In Vietnam (as well as the trendier parts of London of course), bánh mì have become the lunch of choice for anyone in media, fashion or who owns a fixed-gear bicycle.

But to me, the best sandwich you’ll ever eat can be found down an alleyway at the back of the Galleria degli Uffizi at a tiny focaccia bar called All’Antico Vinaio that occupies the corner of a small brown building in Florence, Italy.

Standing room only

At the time we visited, All’Antico Vinaio was ranked #1 of all the restaurants in all of Florence on Tripadvisor, which is quite odd for a sandwich bar in a large city that boasts all variety of Tuscan cuisine. I couldn’t believe it when doing research before our trip, but then the cousin of an Italian friend at work recommended it so we decided to give it a try. It’s a tiny hole in the wall joint where you have to line up outside.

To understand what it’s like to be there it will help if you’ve seen that Seinfeld episode with the Soup Nazi, where a shop sells the best take-away soup in New York and George and Jerry go there to order, but there’s a very specific way to order — you have to line up in a particular way, and place your money on the counter in a particular way, and speak in a specific way, and you can’t say any additional things, otherwise the chef gets angry and you’re banned. Anyway I felt a bit like this here at the focaccia bar, except the staff were really nice. They yell ‘Ciao!’ at you in a way only Italians who know they are making the best damn sandwiches on planet Earth can. Every ‘ciao’ seemed to be singing a different song.

‘CIAO!’ (Translation: Our sandwiches will make you fall in love with life again and all your worries will disappear.)

‘CIAO!’ (Translation: Today is the most beautiful day, I know it is raining but do you see how the rain droplets trickle off the old building walls like a waterfall from the heavens? It is most beautiful, no?)

‘CIAO!’ (Translation: You are beautiful, your friends and family are all beautiful. Life is beautiful. Art is beautiful. The earth is beautiful. Humanity is beautiful. Food is beautiful. Everything is beautiful.)

Trust me, there’s eggplant in there…somewhere

I think I had been smiling at them, beaming really, for at least half a minute before I realised they were asking me what I would like in my sandwich. My knees buckled, my voice faltered, and all the Italian phrases I’d learned from the Lonely Planet guidebook on the plane over vanished from my head.

‘Um, um, um, wh-what do you recommend?’ I blurted out in English like an American student on his gap year.

They smiled (there were three of them behind the counter—a massive operation for what is essentially a rather simple task) and suggested a salami focaccia with eggplant spread and chili. At least this is what they must have said because I didn’t actually understand a word of what they spoke but was so eager to avoid the death stares of the countless tourists in the queue behind me and was eager to pay and be on my way. When they gave it to me I almost fell to the floor, it was so heavy and I could see it was packed with more meat than you’d find at a Brazilian all-you-can-eat BBQ. The price: a measly five euro, and if you felt like it and you could pay for a glass of red wine (two euro), which you pour yourself out the front of the shop.

We sat down inside the tiny, packed shop and unwrapped our sandwiches, which came wrapped in newspaper, a bit like fish and chips do in England. After a while I noticed it was extremely quiet in the shop, even though it was packed with about 10 people in a tiny space, and the line was snaking out the door. I looked up and realised why — people were sitting, standing, leaning against the walls, eating their focaccias in stunned silence.

Everyone was smiling.

No Footlongs here…

I looked around at my munching compatriots and we all had the same look on our faces — we all knew that this was the most fantastic sandwich we had ever had the good fortune of eating in our entire lives. It was a sandwich made from the hands of God. The focaccia was unlike any focaccia I’d ever tried. I was never a huge fan of focaccia, to be honest, when I was younger in Australia, I always felt it was a little heavy or doughy. This stuff was as fluffy and light as a cloud, but still filling. It was as if they when they were making the dough, someone was blowing tiny little bubbles into the dough with a straw. This wasn’t bread, it was wheat-based cocaine.

If I could take myself back to primary school all those years ago, I would go up to seven-year-old me and give myself a big slap in the face for having had zero appreciation for my mother’s attempts to introduce me to sundried tomatoes and focaccia bread. I would also force myself to start learning Italian so years later I could thank those geniuses at All’Antico Vinaio for reminding me that a simple sandwich could taste so good.

Of course, time-travel is physically impossible and so all I said to the staff when we left the bar was the one word I was sure would encapsulate it all: Ciao.ω

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