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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.