A culinary history of New Orleans’ other favorite sandwich
As big as a hubcap and layered with ham, salami, provolone cheese and — critically — olive salad, a single muffuletta sandwich can feed four grown adults. The muffuletta, despite its Italian-sounding name and ingredients, is pure New Orleans. It can be found neither in Italy nor in the other American cities that, like New Orleans, received an influx of Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. Most sources credit Central Grocery, the French Quarter Italian grocery that opened in 1906, for inventing the muffuletta, although a 1971 States-Item interview with Charlie Tusa, the son of one Central Grocery’s founders, casts doubt on that claim. “Nobody has ever been able to figure out for sure how the muffuletta started,” he said.
The muffuletta has never been as common as the po-boy, although it’s rare to attend a New Orleans house party that doesn’t have at least a tray of mini-muffulettas set out for guests. The sandwich, though, can still provoke fierce debate among locals over whether or not it should be heated. Napoleon House, which opened in 1914 but didn’t start serving food until the mid-70s, takes credit for introducing the heated muffuletta. Richard H. Collin, a local food critic at that time, responded that heating a muffuletta “changes the sandwich from an art to atrocity.”
- Muffuletta is not an Italian word. It come from the Sicilian dialect and originally referred to the round loaf and not the sandwich. And the correct spelling is disputed. Even today, you will often see it spelled “muffaletta.” Other variations include “muffoletta,” “muffalatta” and “muffalata.”
- Some say “muffuletta” is derived from a Sicilian word for mushroom, since the round loaf looks like a mushroom cap.
- A “muffolettu” is a special pizza from Sicilian capital of Palermo that is topped with tomato sauce, sardines and — instead of cheese — bread crumbs. The pizza likely led to New Orleans’ round muffuletta loaf.
- For many years, Progress Grocery, a few doors down Decatur Street from Central Grocery, was the other well-known muffuletta maker. Progress closed in 2002, but its owners continue to run Perrone & Sons, a food supplier to restaurants and grocery stores.
- United Bakery, which closed after Katrina, was reputed to have the best muffuletta loaves. In 2015, Napoleon House tracked down the United recipe and now bakes its own version in-house.
The muffuletta is just one of the ways Italian immigrants changed New Orleans cuisine. At Angelo Brocato’s, you can order gelato, cannoli and fig cookies. Italian cooking here means Creole Italian, a variety heavy with red sauce and plenty of Gulf seafood. And families such as the Dorignacs and Zuppardos continue the tradition of Italian-run groceries.