The Definitive New Orleans Italian Sandwich
Scroll down for a list of reviewed muffuletta specialists.
If you find a muffuletta anywhere else in the world, the maker got the idea in New Orleans. The sandwich and its name were born in the French Quarter in the 1890s, when the neighborhood of the French Market was dominated by Sicilian immigrants. A muffuletta is a much-evolved species of Italian panini. Bread, cured meats, cheese, olive oil, and marinated vegetables make a panino. The particular combination and the distinctive bread itself make it a muffuletta.
The word "muffuletta" is a Sicilian dialect word (almost unheard of even in Sicily anymore) for a big, thick, round loaf of bread. The crust is covered with sesame seeds, and the inside is dense. It's cut across, and both sides are moistened with olive salad: an olive oil-drenched collection of olives, garlic, celery, peppers, carrots, cauliflower, basil, oregano. . . the recipe isn't set in concrete. On top of this is ham, Genoa salami, mortadella (optional), mozzarella, provolone, and Swiss cheese (optional but very common). All these are sliced thinly and layered.
These flavors build on one another into a lusty crescendo. You shouldn't be immediately able to pick out any one flavor--unless you happen to get a bite with a really big olive. A whole muffuletta can only be finished by the ravenously hungry. More often, it's split two or four ways.
A controversy swirls around the muffuletta. Traditionalists (of which I am one) believe that a muffuletta should be served at cool room temperature, as it was in the first seventy-five years of its history. The cheeses and meats and olive salad are in perfect harmony that way. However, the vogue in sandwich shops is to bake muffulettas until the bread is hot and the cheeses have melted. To my palate, this throws all the flavors off balance--especially those of the salami and the olive salad. The fats in the meats and some of the cheeses come out, adding less than nothing to the flavor. The interior of the bread collapses to give that ball-of-dough effect.
I strongly advise that you at least try an unheated muffuletta. You will have to specify this when you order: most places now heat the sandwich automatically. More's the pity.
Almost every shop that makes poor boys also makes muffulettas. See the poor boy list for more muffuletta sources.