Travel

The Muffuletta That Changed My Mind About What a Sandwich Can Be

If you eat anything at all in New Orleans, this is it.

January 18, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

When I visit a city for the first time, one of my top priorities is deciding what to eat. I’m on a perpetual quest for food that’s utterly unique and essential to the culture of that place. The only hard part is weeding out the tourist traps from the places that shouldn’t be missed.

In New Orleans, there are seemingly endless possibilities for amazing food. Should a first-time visitor focus on gumbo or jambalaya? Oysters or étouffée? The answer, I think, is that you should sample all of these Creole specialties and more, as many times as possible. Only as long as you have a muffuletta at Central Grocery, the one item that you absolutely cannot leave New Orleans without trying.

View this post on Instagram

I am now 50% sandwich and 25% olive 🍞⚜️

A post shared by Sydney Kramer (@crepesofwrath) on

The muffuletta sandwich was created in New Orleans in 1906 by Salvatore Lupo, the owner of Central Grocery. Amazingly, Central Grocery not only still serves muffuletta sandwiches, but they also serve the best muffuletta sandwich in New Orleans.

It’s rare for culinary pioneers to remain the best at what they do over a long period of time. Many long-running businesses grow stale after a while and slowly succumb to a lesser, lower-quality version of their past selves. Yet the long lines that form inside Central Grocery are not indications of a tourist trap; they’re a sign that their original muffuletta is still as good as it gets.

One bite is all it takes. There’s nothing like that marriage of ham, salami, provolone, and one crucial ingredient: the olive salad (a combination of olives, diced pickled vegetables, roasted red peppers, garlic, chili flakes, and dried oregano). Many people like to focus on this acidic, spicy, savory salad as the element that makes the sandwich special. But in my opinion, it’s the bread at Central Grocery that sets their sandwich apart from all the rest.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Two of us stopped at Central Grocery for lunch the day before we were leaving, ate a quarter of a sandwich, and took the other quarter on the plane the next morning (yes, it was still excellent!). We also each picked up a jar of olive salad and packed it very carefully in our checked luggage to take home. We get a case of olive salad shipped to us, because we're addicted to it. Now if only I could get that bread!”
— Sara L.
Comment

The word “muffuletta” originally referred to a type of bread. Round, large, and topped with sesame seeds, muffaletta bread existed for many years in Sicily before the sandwich was ever sold in New Orleans. Until the late 19th century, when a direct steamship route between Sicily and New Orleans brought over tens of thousands of Sicilians who were fleeing the economic and political turmoil of their homeland. A humble 9-inch round loaf, Central Grocery’s muffuletta bread today is sturdy enough that it stays crusty and maintains its integrity even though it gets piled with moist olive salad. At the same time, this sturdiness is deceiving because the bread is also somehow light and airy in the center. The combination of textures is divine.

View this post on Instagram

Perfection. #warnerbago

A post shared by Justin Warner (@eatfellowhumans) on

Additionally, the sesame seeds on the bread are not a throwaway gesture. In one sense they’re symbolic, as they represent the strong Arab influence that exists in Sicily. But they also add a nutty, aromatic flavor that’s essential to the overall taste of the sandwich.

Anyone can put ham, salami, provolone, and olive salad into a sandwich, but I have yet to come across a muffuletta bread as perfect as the one sold at Central Grocery. Ironically, the only time I’ve had a bread that could compare was in Palermo, Sicily, where I ate an unforgettable version of sfincione. Light and airy and almost fluffy, it was like a mix between focaccia and bread, with a nice crust on the outside and a gentle olive oil smell on the inside. I like to think that the muffuletta bread at Central Grocery in New Orleans and the sfincione in Palermo are long-lost cousins. Although they’ve evolved to become distinct from each other, they originally came from the same place.

Not to Be Missed: New Orleans

  • Where: Central Grocery & Deli (923 Decatur Street; 504-523-1620)
  • What: One muffuletta sandwich; a side of extra olive salad (it’s normal for me to eat one sandwich there, and then buy another at 9 a.m. as I leave town on the way to the airport!)
  • Why: The bread (100% the bread)

Have you ever tried the muffuletta at Central Grocery? Let us know what you think of it in the comments below.

22 Comments

Mj L. January 28, 2019
Central Grocery’s is my favorite, too. A must eat every time im in N.O.
 
Michael R. January 21, 2019
Central Grocery is the most popular place for the sandwich. My vote goes to Nor Joe Trading Company in Metairie. The best in my personal opinion...
 
Libby January 20, 2019
I have never been to NOLA but when I do Central Grocery and a muffuletta will be on my list of to do’s. Maybe I will go to some other restaurants who serve them and make my own quest for the best! I love the story here. Thank you. I would like to add that Giolitti’s in Annapolis Maryland makes a wonderful muffuletta! Will be interesting to see whose better. Cheers!
 
Scott G. January 20, 2019
Great piece, and thanks for the kind thoughts about our city and its sandwiches. But as a native New Orleanian, I’ll disagree that Central Grocery has the best muffuletta in town. It’s the original, and a classic, and I respect that. But these days, I’m a firm believer that the Cochon Butcher muff is the finest in the Crescent City, for two reasons. First, house cured meats that are a true step up in quality. And secondly, it’s served warm, with the cheese slightly melts, a combination of textures that takes the sandwich to the next level (the Napoleon House also serves a hot muffuletta).
 
MtAdventurer January 19, 2019
So, the bread! I am a big time bread(all types)/cracker/sweet roll baker … sourdough/natural leavening and I want to try to duplicate this bread. I found a Food52 slab Muffuletta recipe from about a year ago. Also found a Central Grocery recipe which includes how to make the bread and the olive salad. The Food52 slab recipe says "Test Kitchen approved" … so @JoshCohen was that approved by you and does it stack up? FWIW, I am a huge sandwich fan: sandwiches of my own making but occasionally I find one "out" that is good :)
 
Author Comment
Josh C. January 19, 2019
Hi MtAdventurer, the Slab Muffuletta recipe on our website is great and it uses Saltie's Focaccia recipe (which is one of my all-time favorite focaccia recipes - although it's clearly different from the Central Grocery bread). That being said, I don't personally approve every recipe with the "Test Kitchen-Approved" designation - we have a team of folks who participate in that process. Three years ago I published a vegetarian Muffuletta recipe that I am proud of, I think the olive relish in that recipe is as good as it gets (https://food52.com/recipes/40386-vegetarian-muffuletta)
 
MtAdventurer January 19, 2019
Thanks for the response! And for the link to your vegetarian recipe. Funny as I am just back from grocery and I looked at what was in gardiniera and the other ingredients in the Central Grocery olive salad and thought … I think I can make an olive relish … thinking mostly along the lines of your recipe but there were some surprises in yours :) At any rate, I'll start with your olive relish. And I guess I will make both the slab bread and the central grocery recipe and see what I think. I've never been to New Orleans so am free from expectations except what tastes good to me!
 
Sarag January 20, 2019
The veggie muffuletta and that olive spread—-hands down! So delicious!
 
MtAdventurer January 24, 2019
That olive relish in the veg Muff recipe is wonderful!! I made it exactly as written. I skipped the cauliflower and carrots on the sandwich and used the roast red pepper and some cucumber slices. And plenty of provolone. AND the nolacuisine recipe for the bread worked very well. I used sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast, olive oil instead of shortening and did the bulk ferment 24 hours in the refrigerator. Great flavor, kind of a flattish Italian bread with slightly crisp crust and fluffy crumb to absorb all of the oil deliciously. At any rate, it seemed as you describe in the article above. That olive relish is going to be a permanent condiment in my refrigerator!!
 
Anthony D. January 19, 2019
Before reading this article I spotted the image of the Muffuletta and it immediately brought back memories of my many trips to New Orleans. I was telling my mom about my routine when I would travel to New Orleans. After checking in wherever it was that I would be staying I would immediately head to Central grocery to pick up one of my favorite things on the planet which of course is there legendary Muffuletta. From there I would head across the street past café Dumond and walk up the side of a small bank which was the bank of the Mississippi river where their were a few small benches and just sit with whoever I traveled with and enjoy the sandwich and of course the “mighty Mississippi” and also looking at the Nan Chez paddle boat which was usually docted in the same area Very pleasant memories!
 
Sara L. January 19, 2019
I'm not a sandwich person, but this was absolutely the most memorable, best thing I ate when I was in New Orleans. Well, okay, maybe it's a tie with the beignets at Cafe Du Monde. We stopped at Central Grocery for lunch one day (based on the recommendation of a native who also worked there for a while in his youth) and went to heaven, then we proceeded down the street to Cafe Du Monde for a divine batch of beignets. Two of us stopped at Central Grocery for lunch the day before we were leaving, ate a quarter of a sandwich, and took the other quarter on the plane the next morning (yes, it was still excellent!). We also each picked up a jar of olive salad and packed it very carefully in our checked luggage to take home. We get a case of olive salad shipped to us, because we're addicted to it. Now if only I could get that bread!
 
Paula January 18, 2019
We did have a Central Grocery Muffuletta while we were in town. I had already learned to make them from a friend that lived in the area years ago. We liked the Central Grocery sandwich, but agreed that our version is better. Likely because it has been tweaked to suit our tastes, as one does. Although I'd really love to find a recipe for that bread, it's hard to find a good substitute.
 
Anthony D. January 19, 2019
Let me guess you probably hate olives and changed the olive salad recipe.
 
Lori January 19, 2019
You are certainly entitled to your opinion just like I am entitled to mine. I’m a chef. I know good food.
 
Lori January 20, 2019
You are a miserable person who is negative and not open to any discussion unless it is the same opinion as yours.
 
Bar49 January 18, 2019
Loved learning about the origin of "Muffuletta Bread." And totally agree about what the sesame seeds on the bread bring to the table. Great article!
 
Deborah January 18, 2019
I buy the muffuletta salad mix from Central Grocery (can be ordered online) and make these for friends and family. Lots of sodium but delicious!
 
Tom January 18, 2019
One of my all-time Top 3 sandwiches! Making' me hungry ......
 
Lori January 18, 2019
I agree with Donald. I thought it was actually bland, tasteless. I was very disappointed.
 
Anthony D. January 19, 2019
I find your post hard to believe. I’ve had a the muffuletta at Central grocery many times and it was never bland and trust me I enjoy my food well seasoned......
 
Donald T. January 18, 2019
Central Grocery is a joke. Go next door for a better muffuletta.
 
Anthony D. January 19, 2019
I have and you don’t know what you’re talking about.