By Tom Fitzmorris
Originally published March 12, 2007
A well-made muffuletta is one of the world's best sandwiches,
a New Orleans original, and a perfect lunch for a meeting that needs
its brains cleared. (As long as everyobody is eating it, anyway.)
The history of the muffuletta is clouded. We know that it was
developed by first-generation New Orleans Italians, probably in a
grocery store in the French Quarter. The word "muffuletta" is a
Sicilian dialect word for the kind of bread used to make the sandwich.
(Every time I write for a national magazine and drop the word
"muffuletta" in the copy, I get frantic calls from the fact-checkers.
They can never find any reference to the word, even in Italian-language
The other issue is the determination of a lot of sandwich shops to heat their muffulettas. Even tho ones that don't heat their poor boys (which they always should.)Everything in a muffuletta, with the possible exception of the bread, tastes best at room temperature. A muffuletta heated long enough to melt the cheese (the typical hot muffuletta) turns the tide of its internal flavor battle to the olive salad end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, the salami has a nervous breakdown and becomes slimy and disagreeable. The nutty flavors that keep the cheese balanced (assuming decent cheese has been used) get overwhelmed by the cheese's own fat.
The interior of the bread changes and softens when a muffuletta is heated. Its structure collapses, and you have that ball-of-dough effect. Yuck.
I can accept a muffuletta that's shoved into the oven for a few seconds after being made--just enough to lightly toast the exterior of the bread. But the heat should not penetrate to where the meats and cheeses are.
If that sounds overly traditional, listen to this next proposal. I think that muffulettas would benefit from innovation. Who's to say that only the combination of ham, salami, mortadella, provolone, mozzarella, Swiss cheese, and olive salad is acceptable? For some years, the old Progress Grocery made a few eccentric but wonderful muffulettas that swapped out many of those ingredients for other things.
I wonder why the talented chefs of our town haven't seized on the basic muffuletta idea and played around with it? They've done it to all the other local classics. Cafe Giovanni's Chef Duke LoCicero came up with a muffuletta using buffalo-milk mozzarella and duck pastrami, but that's as far as anyone got with it.
A few sandwich shops have managed to create one new variant: the seafood muffuletta. But these tend to be standard seafood loaves served on a muffuletta bread, usually without olive salad or anything like it.
© 2007 Tom Fitzmorris. All rights reserved. firstname.lastname@example.org