Can you remember that time that you had the perfect sandwich?
It could have been purposefully ordered with anticipation at a fancy rooftop restaurant in Paris or stumbled on at a truck stop during a road trip through the middle of Texas.
The point is, that once tasted, the sandwich must be tasted again.
For me, that sandwich was first tasted while I was studying abroad in the Tuscan town of Siena, Italy. Once I discovered the sandwich at the alimentari next to my school, I went back every, single day. I ate this sandwich so much that, biting into the delectable ciabatta day after day, I actually broke the fake front teeth that I earned from my fateful childhood bike accident.
The story of visiting an Italian dentist is an epic one, but it’s for another day. This story is about a sandwich and, back then, I didn’t even care that I could feel my teeth loosening as I feasted on that fresh-baked ciabatta, piled high with turkey and slathered with sun-dried tomatoes and homemade pesto.
I even learned how to order the sandwich in halting Italian. One of the proudest moments from my three months in Siena is the time that the young daughter of the deli owner leaned over the counter and pointed beyond the lunchtime smash of people (there is no such thing as queuing in Italy) to point at me in the back of the store.
“Il tipico?” she hollered to me.
“Sì,” I yelled back with awe. Had I just cut the line like a local? I had, indeed, and that sandwich tasted all that much better for it. Anyone who has been elbowed out of the way at the produce counter by a local nonna can appreciate that story.
You see where this is going, right?
Yeah. I went back for that sandwich.
It took 15 years, but I went back. I didn’t know if the store would still be there, or if I would be able to find it in the twists and turns of Siena’s alleys. But I was going to try.
I didn’t make this trek alone, though. I brought my mom.
She knew that she was going to Siena so that I could walk down memory lane, but I waited until she had a healthy dose of her morning coffee before I proposed a day of searching for a sandwich.
I have the best mom in the world, though, because she just grabbed her bag and said: “let’s go!”
Lucky for me because, in the end, this search would take us all over Siena and back to where we started. Literally.
Not a bad place to get lost, though
I didn’t remember much about the sandwich shop we were looking for, other than there was a red awning (or maybe writing?) and that it was very close to my school. I also remembered that my school was somewhat close to the epic hill that my roommates and I walked up every day from our little Tuscan villa just outside Siena’s medieval walls.
My mom and I wandered through Siena, marveling at the decorations of the 17 contrades (neighborhoods) whose colorful flags line nearly every street. The contrade don’t mess around about their neighborhood loyalties or their rivalries.
They still march in full, colorful regalia through Siena’s alleyways, especially the 11 streets that all lead toward the centerpiece of town – the famed medieval square called Piazza del Campo.
It is here where, twice a year, the square is turned into a racetrack and appointed jockeys from the contrades race each other on horseback around the square amidst a weeklong festival filled with pageantry.
Today the square remains the central meeting point in Siena, just as it was in medieval times when the nine ruling families laid out the town and the nine lines of the piazza, and just as it was when my classmates and I rolled our empty bottles of wine down the slow slope of the plaza to join in a heap with the empty bottles of the locals.
But back to that sandwich
Nearing the end of our day of wandering, I suddenly stopped short at the top of a set of stairs that led to a very familiar hill.
“This is it!” I exclaimed.
It was the hill – the hill – that my roommates and I trooped up each day to get to school. That meant that the school – and the sandwich – had to be close. From the middle of the hill, I started upward and my memory took over. It was a hard right at the chain link fence and then two alleyways down and…YES!
There was my school.
My mom and I laughed as we realized that my old school was just steps from where we had started our adventure that morning after fueling up on caffeine. From there, it didn’t take me long to retrace the steps to the alimentari.
We laughed even harder as we realized that the daylong search from the time of our morning coffee to alimentari discovery meant that the store was closed for the evening.
Undaunted, I returned early the next day, waiting impatiently through morning deliveries for the counter to open before my mom and I took off on a wine tour through Tuscany. I wasn’t leaving without that sandwich!
When I finally walked into that shop, everything looked the same. And, though it had been 15 years, I even recognized the woman behind the counter as the same kind soul who had considered me a local all those years before.
She remembered me, too. It was the sundried tomatoes that gave me away. We smiled over our shared memories as she rang me up, my mouth watering.
I sat right down and dug in.
It was everything that I remembered and so much more.