Not your Nonna’s Sandwich anymore
Like so many signature dishes of New Orleans cuisine – the Po’ Boy, beignets, dirty rice and chicory coffee – the muffuletta sandwich had humble beginnings.
Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant, and original owner of Central Grocery in the French Quarter (923 Decatur Street), is credited with inventing the sandwich in 1906. After noticing some of his regulars – local immigrant workers – fumbling with their usual lunch of bread, salamis, cheese and olives, he was inspired to incorporate all the ingredients into a handy sandwich.
Muffuletta (sometimes spelled muffaletta) originally referred to the round sesame-sprinkled loaves favoured by early Sicilian immigrants in the French Quarter. Around 10 inches (25 cm) across, somewhat similar to focaccia, and with its crispy crust and a soft interior, the loaf proved to be a sturdy vessel for the various meats, cheeses and condiments heaped into it. Frank Tusa, current co-owner and operator of Central Grocery, says that while always a favourite with local workers, the sandwich really took off in the 1950s. “By the time my father and uncle took the reins in 1953, the muffuletta had become a big thing.”
Tusa, who together with his cousin Tommy Tusa manages day-to-day operations, admits that they’ve stuck to the original recipe: a hearty combination of Italian cold cuts (mortadella, coppa, salami, ham, provolone) and olive salad. “The neighbourhood has changed,” he says, “the economy has changed, but the muffuletta endures. It remains a big seller. We serve a meatless version with provolone and olives, but people mainly come here for the original.”
These days, Central Grocery isn’t the only place in New Orleans crafting the muffuletta. And New Orleans isn’t the only American city offering it. The muffuletta travels well and has become an almost ubiquitous staple of sandwich joints and specialty food shops across the U.S. Now the muffuletta has made inroads north. Afrim Pristine of the Cheese Boutique in Toronto (45 Ripley Ave.) offers his own, kicked-up, take on the traditional sandwich. “We make our own focaccia,” he explains, “with an Italian olive oil base and finished with Maldon salt for flavour and crunch.
We proof the dough, so it’s crusty on the outside and light and airy on the inside. We use an aged provolone for sharpness and swiss emmental to round out the other flavours. For meats, we use mortadella, sopressata and Italian cooked prosciutto. We also make our own bomba spread that goes on the top layer of the bread and olive bruschetta for the bottom layer.” Asked about the sandwich’s success, Pristine replies, “We can’t make enough, actually.”
At Montreal’s La Bête à Pain (114, rue Fleury Ouest), Zack Chaise gives the muffuletta a decidedly Quebecois spin. “It’s more or less the traditional recipe,” he says, “with Italian cold cuts, cheese and antipasto. We vary from the traditional round with one closer to a French country loaf – baked right here of course. We also make our own antipasto spread (a variation on the olive salad). And we get our meats from the charcuterie across the street, Ça Va Barder.”
The muffuletta sandwhich has few equals that are as flexible, easily assembled and transportable for any occasion. Grazie, Signore Lupo.