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What we now know as a muffuletta actually started as a muffuletto. That was the big, round bread loaf that Sicilian bakers sold in the Italian sector of the French Quarter, in New Orleans, in the early 1900s. “Caldo! Caldo!” they called. “Muffuletto! Muffuletto!” NOLA had a new community of Italian immigrants who, before long, created the city’s most iconic sandwich: a cured meat, cheese, and olive spread masterpiece.
Though muffulettas—also spelled muffalettas—are now all over New Orleans (and the United States), one place deems itself “the original”: Central Grocery on Decatur Street. Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant, opened the shop in 1906. There was lots of cured pork and aged cheese and imported pasta, but no muffuletta—at least, not yet.
Lupo’s now-famous recipe was born out of practicality, much like the first (recorded) sandwich. Or so the story goes: In the mid-18th century, the 4th Earl of Sandwich—quite the gambler—requested his meat be served between two slices of bread, so eating wouldn’t interfere with his card playing. At Central Grocery, Lupo noticed something similar. His customers—mostly workmen on lunch breaks—loved ordering this and that and oh, some of that, too, from the deli. But how to eat a smorgasbord amid a crowded grocery? Aha! Sandwich it.
Our rendition is practical, too. If the original muffuletta was conceived to feed a crowd, the slab muffuletta was conceived to feed an even bigger crowd. Instead of a round, bakery-bought loaf, I hit up another Italian bread, one fuss-free enough to make at home: focaccia. The cheat sheet: Bake the bread, halve horizontally, smear with olive spread, load up with all the salami and ham and cheese, then cut into squares. The fine print:
The traditional, round, Sicilian-style sesame bread is tricky to source outside of NOLA. Instead, I turned to trusty Saltie’s. The dough comes together in a matter of minutes, hops into an olive oil puddle, then hangs out in the fridge for days. Once baked—on our BFF, the sheet pan—the result is salt-flecked, oil-smooched, and so crusty-fluffy. The only hard part is not tearing it apart while it’s still warm (good luck to us all). And the cutting: You could horizontally halve the loaf, with a big serrated knife, in one go. But I’m not that daring. I like to vertically halve it first, then horizontally halve each of those.
The Olive Salad
A lot of muffuletta olive salads start with giardiniera, an Italian relish of pickled vegetables (usual suspects: cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, celery). But instead of making that from scratch or buying a jar, I like to just raid my fridge for anything salty and briny, like pepperoncini and capers. Now, olives: I prefer buttery green castelvetrano and oil-cured black, but these could easily make way for the salty, pimiento-stuffed fellows that swim in martinis or those canned black ones that I always stuck on my fingertips as a kid. Or do a mix. Some raw celery, roasted peppers, fresh parsley, and a heavy pour each of olive oil and red wine vinegar round it all out.
The Meat and Cheese
In the same spirit as an Italian-American sub, a muffuletta is a rainbow of cured pork cuts and funky cheese. Which types are up to you, but at the most basic: any salami, ham, white cheese. To upgrade, seek out capicola (cured, spiced, smoked pork shoulder), soppressata (dry salami—I like it hot), mortadella (American baloney’s Italian cousin, traditionally flecked with pistachios), and provolone (have a feeling you know, but: sharp cow’s-milk cheese). I prefer equal portions of each, but play around with the ratio. And if you can’t find one ingredient, just substitute—say, pepperoni for the soppressata. You want the slices thin, so you can stack the layers up, up, up, but not so thin that they tear.
Muffulettas are like wine—the older, the better! Okay, okay, not that much like wine. You want to wait a few hours, not a few years. But those few hours do make a big difference. After you assemble your sandwich, bundle it tightly in plastic or foil. Return to the sheet pan, then top with another sheet pan. Stack that with cans and jars—whatever you have around. If you’re eating within a few hours, it’s fine to sit on the counter. If you’re eating the next day, pop it in the fridge. Cut into squares—figure anywhere from 16 to 32—just before eating. Then scream out, “Freddo! Freddo! Muffuletta! Muffuletta!” Disclaimer: Some serve the sandwich caldo (hot), but that’s a debate for another day.
- 1 sheet pan focaccia (see note)
- 6 tablespoons finely chopped castelvetrano olives (or other green olives)
- 6 tablespoons finely chopped oil-cured black olives (or other black olives)
- 6 tablespoons finely chopped roasted bell peppers
- 3 stalks celery, roughly chopped, plus any leaves that might be attached
- 3 tablespoons drained capers
- 3/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 pound sliced capicola
- 1 pound sliced soppressata
- 1 pound sliced mortadella
- 1 pound sliced provolone
Have you ever tried a muffuletta in New Orleans—or elsewhere? Tell us about it in the comments below!