I’ve been to New Orleans dozens of times. On my first visit, a spontaneous road trip with some college buddies many years ago, I spent late nights drinking hurricane cocktails at Pat O’Brien’s and listening to jazz, but I ate few great meals. So when I was planning my first return visit, I asked my friend, documentary filmmaker and former Louisianan Les Blank, where and what I should eat. His list included oyster po’ boys, andouille-sausage-and-chicken gumbo, jambalaya, and boiled crawfish, dishes that sounded new and exciting in the days when Cajun and Creole cooking were still bayou secrets. I had my doubts about another of Les’s recommendations, however: the muffuletta, a sandwich of Italian cold cuts, something I could easily find in delicatessens at home in San Francisco.

But who was I to doubt a local? So once I arrived in New Orleans, I joined the line at the Central Grocery on Decatur Street, across from the old Farmers’ Market in the French Quarter. Not knowing any better, I ordered a whole muffuletta. A deli man handed me a paper-wrapped round about 10 inches in diameter and 3 inches thick. I took it across the street, sat down atop a concrete wall, and unwrapped the behemoth. The sandwich maker had sliced the loaf into four wedges, each an ample lunch in itself, even for someone with a big appetite. I ate one quarter and achieved sandwich nirvana.

A muffuletta is the perfect marriage of bread, filling, and condiments. The disc-shaped Sicilian loaf that gives the sandwich its name is soft enough to bite into without the filling and dressing oozing out, but firm enough not to get overly soggy. The filling is often a fairly undistinguished mixture of boiled and pressed ham, salami, mortadella, and provolone cheese. The key is the dressing, an olive salad that raises the muffuletta to the pinnacle of sandwich stardom. At Central Grocery it’s a mixture of marinated green and black olives, chopped giardiniera (pickled cauliflower, carrots, and sweet red peppers), celery, pepperoncini, onions, parsley, capers, oregano, vinegar, and olive oil.

Legend has it that the muffuletta sandwich was created at the Central Grocery, a decade or so after the store opened in 1906. Proprietor Salvatore Lupo wanted to provide a convenient lunch for his customers, mostly Sicilian vendors from the Farmers’ Market. He sliced open muffuletta loaves and stuffed them with cold cuts and marinated dressing. The bread originated in Sicily, where it’s called muffulette, and where I’ve had sandwiches made on a somewhat smaller round loaf (more like a large hamburger bun). Anchovies and tomato served as the filling, dressed with olive oil.

One advantage of making your own muffuletta sandwich is that you can use artisanal cured meats (prosciutto, coppa, salami), mortadella, and specialty cheeses. You can also substitute very thinly sliced leftover beef, veal, pork roast, or ham for the Italian cold cuts.

Today, most Central Grocery customers take their sandwiches to go, perhaps for a picnic in Jackson Square, just a block away.

On my regular visits to New Orleans, when I crave a muffuletta, I usually settle into the Napoleon House, a tavern in a 200-year-old building on Chartres Street. The version here, filled with ham, Genoa salami, and pastrami, along with Swiss and provolone cheeses, is served warm. It goes well with the famous Napoleon House Pimm’s Cup cocktail (concocted with Pimm’s gin-based liqueur, lemonade, and a splash of 7-Up). This is the place to sit back, relax, and enjoy the decaying elegance of old New Orleans—and the sandwich that captures the spirit and soul of this distinctive American city.

Muffuletta Sandwich
(SERVES 4 TO 8 )
Recipe by Bruce Aidells

INGREDIENTS
Olive dressing
1 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1 cup Italian green olives, pitted and chopped
1/3 cup pimientos, chopped
2 tbsp capers, chopped
1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
3 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper

Filling
1/2 pound provolone and Swiss cheeses, thinly sliced
1/3 pound Italian salami, thinly sliced
1/3 pound prosciutto, thinly sliced
1/3 pound mortadella, thinly sliced
4 large Italian sandwich rolls

MAKE IT
Olive dressing*
1. Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl, stir well, and season to taste with pepper.
2. Refrigerate at least two hours.
Sandwich**
1. Layer two slices of each of the cheeses and the cold cuts on one side of each roll.
2. Spread a generous layer of the olive dressing over the meats and cheeses.
3. Top with the other half of the roll.
4. Cut each sandwich in half and serve.

*The dressing is best prepared two or three days ahead.
**A muffuletta benefits from being made a few hours in advance so the flavor of the olive dressing can soak into the bread.

Photo by Cedric Angeles. This appeared in the May/June 2012 issue. This recipe reflects corrections made after the story appeared in print. Find where to eat muffuletta in New Orleans.