New Orleans is host to many iconic dishes, from gumbo to the po-boy. Among them is a perennial favorite: the muffaletta. The sandwich sports Italian cured meats, cheeses and its signature olive salad, all stuffed inside a large, soft, sesame-seed flecked round loaf, making the muffaletta perfect for sharing. It’s worth noting that before there was the muffaletta sandwich, there was merely the muffaletta loaf. Just as we name breads by their shape: baguette, boule, pistalette, the muffaletta named the bread. The bread was introduced by Sicilian immigrants who arrived here in New Orleans after the Civil War, bringing with them their culinary traditions. Initially families would buy muffaletta from Sicilian bakers to take home and eat, but soon, street merchants began selling the bread filled with a variety of ingredients from olive oil and anchovies to ricotta and cured meats. By the early 20th century, the version New Orleanians know and love emerged as the most popular version.
The most well-known purveyor of the muffaletta is Central Grocery. Located in the French Quarter, just across from the French Market where many of the Sicilian farmers would sell their produce, Central Grocery is easily spotted by the line of hungry patrons snaking outside its door. Its version of the sandwich is traditional: capacolla, salami, mortadella and provolone served with the store’s signature version of olive salad. Locals and visitors alike are fans of Central Grocery’s traditional muffaletta.
But as with any traditional dish, variations are bound to appear. While the original sandwich was served cold, many people prefer their sandwich hot and a perfect spot to savor all those meats covered in melting cheese is the Napoleon House. Originally a sandwich shop and grocery and now a bar and restaurant, it has been in the Impastato family since 1914. If you can, tuck into your sandwich in their lush courtyard, while enjoying the opera arias that waft through the air.
For another twist on the muffaletta, head to the CBD for Cochon Butcher. Their sandwich is also served hot, but in lieu of being made on a traditional loaf (which easily served four people), you can sample a single sized version. Cochon Butcher also up the ante by making a muffaletta with house cured meats, making the sandwich even more local.
But if you want to eat a muffaletta the way that most locals do, then make your way to Rouses deli and buy a box of their mini muffalettas. There is a small Rouses in the French Quarter, or you can visit their newer and larger store in the CBD. New Orleanians know that if they need to bring a treat to a tailgate, a Mardi Gras parade, or any informal shindig, a tray of mini muffalettas from Rouses is always welcome. And while the larger size sandwich is also available, nothing will beat the look on your friends’ faces back home when you tell them that you managed to eat five muffalettas, all by yourself!
Want to learn more about New Orleans’ Italian heritage? Listen to our GoNOLA Radio podcast with Chef Anthony Spizale!
Elizabeth Pearce gives historic cocktail walking tours of the French Quarter. When she’s not drinking or talking about drinking, she’s writing about drinking at Neat with a Twist. To find out more, visit Elizabeth’s website.