I have a routine whenever I return to New Orleans, a city where I lived for eight years. After dropping off my bags, I stroll down to Central Grocery, the city's famous Italian grocery store in the French Quarter. My mission? To bite into a muffuletta, one of the Big Easy's most beloved sandwiches.
It always feels like Central Grocery has changed little since it opened on Decatur Street back in 1906. The inevitably long line for the sandwich counter snakes around shelves brimming with bags of imported pasta with faded labels and tinned tomatoes topped with a layer of dust. Founder Salvatore Lupo, an immigrant from Sicily, is the man responsible for inventing the shop's signature sandwich: a round loaf of bread covered in sesame seeds, split horizontally and filled with provolone cheese, mortadella, salami, ham and—the most important ingredient—olive salad. Think of it as a rich Italian giardiniera with green olives, celery, cauliflower, carrots and pimientos chopped into fine pieces and flavored with oregano, thyme, garlic and olive oil.
The sandwiches are available by the quarter, half or whole and prepared in advance. This might sound off-putting at first, but muffulettas improve with age, as the firm bread soaks up the juice from the olive salad, flavors intermingling. Even a quarter muffuletta, which is definitely enough for those with smaller appetites, arrives wrapped in an oversize piece of white butcher paper. Unwrapping it always feels like opening a present.
It isn't quite as ubiquitous as, say, the po'boy, which is New Orleans's other famous sandwich. But it does beg the question, "What exactly is a muffuletta?" Is it simply a sandwich made with Italian meats, cheeses and olive salad? Or is it something more than that?
First, consider the bread. At about 10 inches in diameter, the roll used at Central Grocery is practically a loaf in its own right. Although it was likely inspired by Italian focaccia, the interior of this special muffuletta bread is light and fluffy—crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, like a cross between focaccia and French bread. Yet Mandina's, a storied Italian restaurant in Mid-City, serves a version of the sandwich made with French bread, while Liuzza's, another neighborhood stalwart located just two blocks away, serves a Frenchuletta using toasted garlic bread.
Next comes the debate over one seemingly simple detail: whether the sandwich should be served hot or cold. Just a short walk from Central Grocery, other classic French Quarter spots like Napoleon House, Frank's Restaurant and The Original Pierre Maspero's serve warm muffulettas, complete with gooey melted cheese. Perhaps the most famous pro-heat version, though, is at Cochon Butcher, helmed by James Beard Award-winning chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski. "I like it heated so the bread gets a bit crusty and the flavor of the meats really open up," Link explains. "And I'm always a big fan of melty cheese."
You probably won't find an oven inside Central Grocery; however, legend has it locals enjoy grabbing one of its muffulettas to go and heating it up at home. Although I love melted cheese under almost any circumstance, I still prefer a muffuletta the way it was designed to be served: cold. Because biting into that sandwich, in a setting like Central Grocery that never changes, tastes like coming home.
Meredith Bethune is a food and travel writer based in Belgium. See how many different beers she can possibly try while living abroad on Instagram at @meredithbethune.
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