This article was published in 2012. It was updated on October 21, 2023. As of this date, all restaurants mentioned remain open.
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.
Where to try a Muffuletta in New Orleans
On your next trip to New Orleans, stop by one of these classic establishments for a Muffuletta.
930 Tchoupitoulas St., (504) 588-7675, cochonbutcher.com
Located in the Arts District (the former Warehouse District), Cochon Butcher adjoins the German-Cajun Cochon restaurant. Chef Stephen Stryjewski’s house-cured meats are the main attraction. In addition to an artisanal muffuletta, sandwiches include pork belly with mint and cucumber, and a buckboard bacon melt with collard greens.
923 Decatur St., (504) 523-1620
The line forms early outside Central Grocery, the iconic Italian-American store that invented the muffuletta, and remains its best-known purveyor. Descendants of the Sicilian founder still run the operation and can send you home with a jar of the famous olive dressing, or a copy of Marie Lupo Tusa’s Sicilian-French-Creole cookbook Marie’s Melting Pot. If you have a taste for something completely different to accompany your sandwich, try the Zapp’s spicy Cajun “Crawtato” chips.
500 Chartres St., (504) 522- 4152, napoleonhouse.com
Former New Orleans mayor Nicholas Girod was the first resident of this 200-year-old landmark (shown at top). In 1821 he issued Napoleon an invitation to stay here, allegedly as part of a plot to rescue the French emperor from exile. The three-story building has been known as the Napoleon House ever since. Po’ boy sandwiches, jambalaya, seafood gumbo, and red beans and rice with smoked sausage join the jumbo muffuletta on the classic café menu.
Can’t get to NOLA? Here’s how to make a Muffuletta at home
(SERVES 4 TO 8 )
Recipe by Bruce Aidells
- 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
- 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
- Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl, stir well, and season to taste with pepper.
- Refrigerate at least two hours.
- Layer two slices of each of the cheeses and the cold cuts on one side of each roll.
- Spread a generous layer of the olive dressing over the meats and cheeses.
- Top with the other half of the roll.
- Cut each sandwich in half and serve.