Sandwich

This Oversized Focaccia Muffuletta Is Ready for Mardi Gras

February  5, 2018

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 Bread

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.

And to think, all these were born from the same loaf of bread! Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

The Press

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.

Have you ever tried a muffuletta in New Orleans—or elsewhere? Tell us about it in the comments below!

11 Comments

Hollis E. February 16, 2018
back in the late '70s, i lived in New Orleans, where i met my husband, po'boys, oysters, head cheese, boudin, beignets, and muffalettas. (NOTE: the only cuisine i've ever tasted that i don't care for is Cajun, so no Shrimp 'n Grits, Barbequed Shrimps, gumbo, jambalaya, etc.) i liked everything about the muff except the bread and amount of cold cuts -- too thick, in both cases.<br /><br />later, in Houston, i developed my own vegetarian version -- the Salad Sandwich -- made with fresh produce (whatever looked good when i was shopping, but always onions, dead-ripe Roma tomatoes, arugula, jarred roasted red peppers, and radishes (anything else, like zucchini, cukes, yellow squash, etc. was lagniappe); sharp provolone; an olive salad of some kind; oil from the olive salad and a few splashes of red wine vinegar and/or lemon juice. i'd polish it off with fresh-cracked black pepper, flaky salt, and dried oregano. all on focaccia or ciabatta -- whatever was available. then i'd wrap it tightly, set it out on the counter, and weight it down for a few hours. people who ate it still speak of it in reverent, hushed tones. i am NOT a vegetarian -- i ADORE the cold cuts in the muff -- but the Salad Sandwich was always spectacular.<br /><br />this version sounds pretty good. since sandwiches are my FAVORITE foods, i'll try it for sure. also take note that, although i would kill or die for garlic, there is none in the Salad Sandwich; it just clashed with the veggie + olive harmony.<br /><br />growing up, i lived on schmalz, tomato, and onion sandwiches -- if you've never had one of those, you've really missed one of the great sandwich experiences. but the schmalz had to have been rendered with chopped onions and cut-up pieces of chicken skin, which, when fried up, were crunchy bits of heaven that literally melt in your mouth -- Jewish Chicharrónes -- called Gribenes in Yiddish. the onions and the Gribenes lent their excellent flavor to the ensuing schmalz.
 
kim February 11, 2018
My first Muffie was at Central. I’m not a sandwich lover for the most part, but give me a good Muffie or Cuban, and I’m in. I have attempted my own muffuletta (and even made the copycat bread) and it was good; but not as good. I look foreard to trying this focaccia version.
 
Connie K. February 11, 2018
I’ve had a muff at Cochon Butcher most recently. I much preferred it to Central’s. Maybe it’s that Cochon cures their own meat, which makes it a little more upscale. It’s a matter of taste, I suppose.
 
Albert D. February 11, 2018
reading terminal in philly,sooooo good
 
Susan F. February 11, 2018
I have had the pleasure of eating a muff at Central Grocery and it was absolutely delicious! Worth every minute of heartburn, too! I loved NOLA and, on my next trip, would go right back to Central Grocery on my way to the hotel. The staff are great, too - very genuine!
 
Virginia E. February 11, 2018
I lived in New Orleans and a Muff at Central Grocery was necessary. When I visit I always bring one home in my luggage to savor later. A true New Orleans treat. <br />
 
cosmiccook February 11, 2018
As a NO native IMHO The BEST muff is at BUTCHER -- I find Central and the others WAY too greasy, and inferior meats & salad. JER--god do I remember Luigi's the Radiator's used to play on Wednesdays- 2$ pitcher of beers (late 70's)
 
jodyrah February 11, 2018
I live in Nola. I prefer the Central Grocery muff above all others. Their olive salad is what distinguishes it from the rest. The flavor is unlike any other jarred variety sold in local markets. You can buy Central Grocery olive salad to create a more authentic flavored muffuletta. They smear oil from the salad on the bread, then sparingly layer ham, cheese, salami and the olive salad. They are best served at room temp. And yeah, they can marinate in your frig for a day or two and still taste great.
 
Jer February 11, 2018
As a teenager I worked at an Italian restaurant called Luigi’s pizza on elysian fields (West Bank location) I was taught how to make the muffuleeta. We always toasted it to get the provolone cheese good and melting and the top bun nice and toasty . I remember having put somewhere like an ounce and a half of each meat. We use ham and salami that was cut razor thin and then added 2 ounces of provolone cheese . This was all put in the pizza oven including the top bun for several minutes . We would take it out of the pizza oven and at the homemade all of salad and then put it on her pizza cutting trees and slice it into four sections and then serve it on a small pizza pan to the customer . This was so yummy . I made hundreds of these sandwiches and I did very the ingredients just for variety but in the end the original recipe was the one that I love the best . I’ve never met a single person outside of New Orleans that knew anything at all about the sandwich. and I had to show die hard Sicilians here in South Florida about the sandwich they were surprised because they thought they knew everything about Italian food . Oh those were the days
 
Robin L. February 11, 2018
I also frequented Luigi's pizza on elysian fields but that is by UNO (east bank). I went there for sangria and pizza. I wish I knew about the muffaleeta. I make my own french bread and muffaletta for the parades but might try this foccacia method next time.
 
Paulette P. February 11, 2018
HI- Before leaving for Thoth parade -- Thank you for read on Food52 -- re Central Grocery -- A landmark for all who love New Orleans. Paulette Perrien New Orleans