The Muffaletta! A Muffawhatta?
Updated: Feb 4
Let me preface this by stating “it’s my favorite ethnic cuisine”, and I feel that I am both genetically and culturally Italian enough to say what I’m about to say without it being labeled hate speech. Italian food is a scam! I love it, but let’s be honest. Do we really need to have a hundred different names for the mixture of water, flour and salt just because it’s rolled into different shapes? I’m not talking about homemade vs dry pasta, that’s legit. But am I only one that sees this is as an organized ploy to justify charging more for a box of Barilla Mostaccioli than for the same 16 ounces of penne. We all know they're both ziti anyway. And let me ask you this. Do you honestly think you could tell the difference if your Angel Hair with clam sauce was made with spaghettini instead of capellini? I don't think so.
Same goes for Italian sandwiches with names like hoagies, subs, grinders, po’boys, wedges, heroes and torpedoes, all identical looking sandwiches of cured lunch meat layered with cheese on a long roll. Almost all of them were introduced to the US by Italian immigrants. Same food, different label! It’s kind of a Master Class in Marketing now that I think about it.
Wait, That Looks Kinda Different!
Perhaps he missed the memo, or maybe it’s just no one tells a Sicilian what to do, but in 1906 Salvatore Lupo mixed things up when he introduced the Muffaletta sandwich to New Orleans. Sicilian immigrants started to settle in New Orleans in the late 1800’s bringing their unique style of baked goods including the "muff-uh-LAH-tuh", a 10 inch in diameter hard crusted loaf of bread. Unlike other sandwich makers who used a long roll, Salvatore saw the large sesame seeded roll as the perfect instrument to hold the arrangement of salami, mortadella, provolone and Swiss cheese. And to further differentiate this masterpiece from other Italian subs, he added a chopped olive salad made with pickled celery, cauliflower, garlic and seasoning in olive oil. By the time the sandwich is wrapped up, enough of the flavorful oil has saturated the thick bottom portion of the roll without compromising the structure, making each bite beautifully messy.
From his store Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the middle of the French Quarter, the Muffaletta was born. Quickly, many neighborhood grocers copied the sandwich changing up their homemade vegetable giardiniera. In 1924, the now defunct Progress Grocery started making a name for themselves as did DiMartino’s 50 years later. Nowadays, any deli worth their oil and vinegar will likely offer some version of this sandwich.
Some Like it Hot or At least Warm
If you could only eat one Muffaletta in your life, I'd encourage you to eat it inside Central Grocery, but sadly due to Hurricane Ida in 2021, the building suffered extensive damage and continues renovations with no end in immediate sight. They continue to make their sandwiches daily, selling them throughout various city markets but there is something special about eating it where it was invented. In the meantime, the Napolean House offers a heated-up version that, as the kids say, SLAPS! The extra crunch of the toasted bread and the nutty aroma of the sesame seed adds an additional dimension to the sandwich. Their olive salad is more olive than veggie and it's lighter on the olive oil, but the gently melted cheese makes up for any lack of moisture. And while you are there, get the refreshing Pimm's Cup, a gin aperitif made with Pimm's & 7 Up and cucumbers! Or two or three!
Outside of Louisiana you'll be hard pressed to find a proper Muffaletta. And if you do, and it's not on a round roll, get the hell out. It won't be worth it. It should be noted that these sandwiches are cut into quarters and are probably a two-person meal but take my advice and save yourself a quarter for a post Bourbon Street snack. They taste even better tipsy!