The muffuletta sandwich is one of the great sandwiches of the world, and it's criminal that it can hardly be found anywhere outside the city of New Orleans.

It's also a bit of a lesson to those who think the only cultural and culinary heritage of New Orleans is French, Spanish, African and Creole. You ask folks about the quintessential sandwiches of New Orleans, and many people will immediately reply "po-boy", but the muffuletta is as New Orleans as any po-boy you'll ever eat, and there's nothing Creole about it. This is pure Italian, and pure Sicilian if you want to be specific. New Orleans, in its population and its cuisine, owes much to Italy and especially Sicily; Italians have been coming to the Crescent City since the 1880s. It wasn't always easy for them -- one of the worst lynchings in American history was a massacre perpetrated upon a group of Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

The Italians soon settled in comfortably into New Orleans culture, and we are the richer for it. Their contribution to local culture and cuisine has been immeasurable; in fact, you frequently see "Creole-Italian" referred to as one of the local sub-cuisines. This kind of cooking is epitomized at places like Mandina's, Liuzza's, and the many places in the city that serve muffuletta sandwiches.

According to the tale I've heard, the muffuletta sandwich was invented by Signor Lupo Salvadore, who opened the now-famous little Italian market called Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the French Quarter in 1906 and created the muffuletta sandwich, named for a favored customer (although I had also heard that the sandwich was named for the baker of the round Italian bread on which the sandwich is served).

You'll hear lots of New Orleanians pronounce the sandwich "muff-uh-LOT-uh", but I understand that the proprietors of Central Grocery pronounce it "moo-foo-LET-ta". The common abbreviation is "muff"; e.g., "I'll take me a half a muff."

Here are my favorite places in New Orleans to get muffulettas. If I have time, I'll frequently stop at one of these places on the way to the airport to pick up a muffuletta to eat on the plane. Given the hideously poor quality (or complete nonexistence) of airline food these days, this is something one absolutely must do when leaving New Orleans. As the olive salad aroma fills the entire plane, it really pisses off your fellow passengers too, which makes it even more fun.

Central Grocery, 923 Decatur Street, French Quarter
The home of the muffuletta, and a must-visit. Many consider this to be the quintessential muffuletta in the city, and as great (and historically significant) as it is, these days I'll usually avoid the lines and go elsewhere. Still though, if you've never been to Central, you've gotta go. Over the years the muffuletta operation has expanded greatly and limited the grocery store space; they have some indoor seating now for muffuletta lovers. Me, I like to take mine to go and eat it on a bench in Jackson Square or on the Moonwalk. They do a brisk to-go business, and big jars of olive salad are available for you to buy and take home. I like my muffuletta with a Barq's from their big Barq's machine in the back, even though it's not locally-made anymore.

Progress Grocery, 4512 Zenith Street, Metairie. (504) 455-FOOD.
The Perrones have been making muffulettas almost as long as the folks at Central next door to their original location (since 1924, in fact, when grandpa Bartolomeo Perrone emigrated to New Orleans from Palermo, Sicily), but I often found their muffuletta edged out their slightly more famous neighbors. They also had a cracking good Italian grocery store as well. Unfortunately, their brick and mortar store closed, but they still sell their muffulettas, jars of olive salad and Italian groceries via their web site.

Napoleon House, 500 Chartres St. at St. Louis, French Quarter
Napoleon House is one of the world's greatest and most civilized drinking establishments, with excellent food to boot. The Napoleon House muffuletta is considered by many to be the "other" definitive version, different from most others in that it's heated. I personally prefer my muffulettas cold, but that said, they do an excellent sandwich here. Don't forget to order their signature drink, the Pimm's Cup, while you're waiting for your muff to arrive.

Liuzza's, 3636 Bienville Street, Mid-City.
You don't get actual muffulettas at Liuzza's, but what they call a "Frenchuletta", which is basically a muffuletta on French bread instead of Italian. Even though it ain't a traditional muffuletta, it's still damn good, as is every other single morsel of food that's served at marvelous, wondrous Liuzza's. Get an ice-cold Abita beer in a big frosted globe.

Arabi Food Store, 650 Friscoville Av., Arabi, St. Bernard Parish
I must confess that I haven't been here since I was in high school (and I ain't tellin' how long ago that was), but the muffuletta was damned good back then (as was their french-fry po-boy and the grilled hot dog and chili po-boy). I've been meaning to embark on an adventure down in Da Parish, hitting Arabi Food Store for lunch and Rocky and Carlo's for dinner.

Come Back Inn, 3826 Williams Blvd., Kenner.
You hear lots of tales of people making a last-minute mad dash into the Quarter to pick up muffulettas and jars of olive salad, then rushing to the airport to make their flights home (I've done this myself, and as I mentioned above, I'll go to Progess if I have time). But if you don't have time, or if you decide at the last minute -- like while you're heading west on da I-10 toward the airport -- that you want some muffulettas to take home, or if you just want to avoid the trouble of parking in the Quarter as you're trying to leave the city, try a stop at this joint in Kenner right on the way to the airport (in fact, right before the airport exit on da I-10). My sister turned me on to this one, and they make an a pretty decent muffuletta, and they'll even pack the olive salad separately so that the bread doesn't get soggy if you're taking them all the way home (mine don't last that long, though -- I devour it as soon as we reach cruising altitude). Don't let the fact that it's in Kenner scare you.

Make your own muffuletta!

This is not just a bunch of cold cuts and cheese. Anyone can make that. That's not to say that the meats and cheeses aren't important -- they are. You can get good quality Italian meats and cheeses in most good supermarkets, but you'd be better off at an Italian market (especially for the mortadella, which isn't always easy to find at a conventional supermarket.

To make this, you need two very important ingredients -- the bread, and the olive salad. In a pinch any good Italian bread will do, but for an authentic muffuletta you need a muffuletta loaf. It's round, usually sesame-seeded and about 10 inches in diameter. I'm told that many New Orleans muffuletterias (a new word I just made up) get their bread at Angelo Gendusa's bakery. If you want a Liuzza's-style "Frenchuletta", use a good light-bodied crispy-crusted French bread. Then ... the olive salad. The Holy Grail of sandwich fillings.

The olive salad recipe is the Number One single most-requested recipe on The Gumbo Pages.

While Central Grocery do not give out their muffuletta olive salad recipe, lots of folks have tried to duplicate it, with varying degrees of success. I've been saying for years now that I'm going to get a jar of olive salad from Central and reverse-engineer it, but until then, this will do quite nicely.

New Orleanian cook and cookbook author Chiqui Collier was kind enough to share this recipe with me for this site, and says, "It is my pleasure to send you the recipe for the original muffletta sandwich that was created by the grandfather of a lady i worked with 28 years ago." (Presumably that was Signor Salvadore.)

"The recipe for the olive salad is the exact way it was given to me. It makes over a gallon, but since your comments indicate that you love it, i'm sure you won't want to cut it down. It stores very well in the refrigerator for many months and makes great gifts along with the recipe for the sandwich. It does appear in my cookbook, "Cookery N'Orleans Style"

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl or pot and mix well. Place in a large jar and cover with 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 Crisco oil. Store tightly covered in refrigerator. Allow to marinate for at least 24 hours before using.

Split a muffuletta loaf or a loaf of Italian bread horizontally. Spread each half with equal parts of olive salad and oil. Place meats and cheeses evenly on bottom half and cover with top half of bread. Cut in quarters. Enjoy!

Serves four timid dieters, two hearty New Orleanians or one incredible maiale.


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Chuck Taggart   email chuck (at) gumbopages (dot) com