Dozen Best Muffulettas
The well-made muffuletta is not only an essential New Orleans eat, but one of the world’s best sandwiches. Although it’s obviously Italian, you won’t find anything quite like it in Italy. In fact, even its name is little known in Sicily, from which its New Orleans-bound inventors came. To them, “muffuletta” was a dialect word for a round, thick loaf of bread.
One of these immigrants (there is dispute over who he was) used the bread to make a new kind of panino in the early 1900s. Enclosed inside are ham, salami (neither the hard kind nor the very soft, but somewhere in between), mozzarella and Swiss cheese (at least), plus mortadella and provolone (perhaps). The unique touch that gives a muffuletta its character is its chunky salad of olives, peppers, garlic, and various marinated vegetables. A muffuletta is essentially an antipasto sandwich.
It’s a fascinating battle between elements with powerful flavors (salami, garlic, olives) and those with mellow, moderating flavors (cheese, olive oil, and crusty bread). The ham centers everything else. It’s a flavor like nothing else in the sandwich world.
Two controversies attend the muffuletta. The first is who invented it. It certainly came out of first-generation New Orleans Italian grocery stores in the French Quarter. The Central Grocery claims to have been the one, but there are other creation myths.
The other issue is whether it should be served at room temperature–the way the oldest places have always done it–or hot, as it commonly is these days. I think that heating a muffuletta upsets the balance of flavors and makes the meats and cheeses greasy. But most shops now heat muffs automatically, and if you want it at room temperature, you must ask. It’s a good idea, because the maker will know you’re serious about quality and will give your muffuletta special attention.
Moderately bad news: the baker of the classic muffuletta loaf–the United Bakery on St. Bernard Avenue–was wiped out by Katrina and has never returned. Other bakeries have filled the gap, some better than others. I always ask before I order, because the bread is as important as any other aspect of a great muffuletta. Angelo’s, Cartozzo’s, and La Louisiane are the most consistent. The worst: supermarket muffuletta bread, with the exception of Dorignac’s.
1. Bosco’s. Mandeville: 2040 La Hwy 59. 985-624-5066. ||Covington: 141 TerraBella Blvd. 985-612-7250. Bosco’s has the bread, the good ham and salami, and the good cheeses, all sliced very thinly and finished with a great homemade olive salad. Even by the gargantuan scale of the muffuletta, this one is enormous. One could make two muffulettas out of the amount of fillings Tony Bosco puts on one.
2. Nor-Joe Imports. Metairie: 505 Frisco Ave. 504-833-9240. Norma and Joe run a grocery store selling exactly the kinds of meats and cheeses and olives and olive oil you want to find on a muffuletta. And they put them to good use.
3. Frank’s. French Quarter: 933 Decatur. 504-525-1602. Back in the days when the discussion of the muffuletta came down to whether you thought the Central or the Progress Grocery made it better, a small crowd of non-conformists made their way down to the end of the same block as those two famous muffmakers to get the sandwich from Frank’s. It’s still right up there.
4. Napoleon House. French Quarter: 500 Chartres. 504-524-9752. Once the best muffuletta in town, the Napoleon House lost its consistency as it bakes those sandwiches more and more often. Still good ingredients, though, and an unbeatable old New Orleans environment.
5. Central Grocery. French Quarter: 923 Decatur. 504-523-1620. The Central Grocery is to muffulettas what Antoine’s is to French-Creole food. It’s not a restaurant but strictly a take-out place. A line snakes through the aisles of the small grocery store, full of Italian specialties. The meats are top-notch, but the used in quantities that may take you aback if you’re used to the loaded-down suburban shops.
6. Slice. Lee Circle Area: 1513 St Charles Ave. 504-525-7437. ||Uptown: 5538 Magazine St. 504-897-4800. Pizzerias always have all the makings of muffulettas, and some even make muffuletta pizzas. (Sounds better than it is.) These classy pizza places put more emphasis on quality deli meats and cheeses than most.
7. Parran’s Po-Boys. Metairie: 3939 Veterans Blvd. 504-885-3416. Big, thick, everything made in house except the bread. Ask to have it toasted before the meats and cheeses go on.
8. Giorlando’s. Metairie: 741 Bonnabel. 504-835-8593. Long s great sandwich shop, Giorlando’s has evolved into a fine all-around neighborhood cafe. The muffuletta is as good as the roast beef poor boy, which is saying something.
9. Katie’s. Mid-City: 3701 Iberville. 504-488-6582. Tremendous in girth and thickness, with crusty, toasty bread.
10. Johnny’s Po-Boys. French Quarter: 511 St Louis. 504-524-8129. The muffuletta here takes second place to the poor boys, but the latter are among the best in town. No important details are missed on the muff, and the bread is excellent.
11. Come Back Inn. Metairie: 8016 W Metairie Ave. 504-467-9316. A major specialty of this neighborhood eatery since the 1960s, it’s the place a lot of Metairie people think of when the muffuletta hunger wells up.
12. Vucinovich’s. New Orleans East: 4510 Michoud Blvd. 504-254-5255. If you’re in extreme New Orleans East on Chef Menteur Highway, you have two choices: a great Vietnamese meal, or a poor boy, platter, or muffuletta from this consistently fine little shop.