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Cashew Chicken

That's a Mouthful

Sicilian-inspired muffuletta sandwich is big enough
for food-loving New Orleans.

While po-boys tend to get much of the attention when talking about iconic New Orleans sandwiches, the real star is the Sicilian-inspired muffuletta, an amalgamation of Italian bread, meats and cheeses, and olive salad brought together for one incredible gastronomical experience.

Sandwich

Above: Delicious olive salad makes Nor-Joe’s muffuletta stand out among all others in New Orleans.

Below: Nor-Joe is a food store first, but many come for the delicious sandwiches. Don Redman photos

Restaurant

The sandwich gets its name from a round, Sicilian-style bread called the muffuletta, although the editors of www.muffoletta.com – self-proclaimed experts on the subject – say the correct spelling is muffoletta. There are many other spelling variations out there as well, but they all refer to the same thing: a wheel of plain bread very similar in texture to French bread, but with the addition of sesame seeds.

Writing for www.NewOrleanshistorical.org, Dana Logsdon traces the origins of the sandwich to Sicilian immigrants who came to New Orleans in the late 19th century. A large number of these immigrants settled in an area in the lower French Quarter (soon to be known as “Little Palermo”), bringing with them everything that would eventually make for a classic sandwich: cured meats, Old World cheeses, olive salad, and large wheels of muffuletta bread.

Food historians are in general agreement that prior to 1906, laborers in Little Palermo would frequent neighborhood stores like Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the French Quarter that specialized in Sicilian and Italian goods to buy all the ingredients they would need for sandwiches, and then try to build them while standing up or on their laps. All that changed in 1906 when grocer Salvatore Lupo began selling prepared muffuletta sandwiches for the first time from Central Grocery, and from then on, the sandwich has been a New Orleans classic.

Today, every reputable sandwich shop in the metro New Orleans area carries the muffuletta on its menu. There are many very good versions to choose from, but if you are looking for a standard-bearer for the muffuletta, you must try one from Nor-Joe Importing Co. in Metairie, La.

Like the originator of the modern muffuletta sandwich, Nor-Joe is a store first and deli second. Founded in the 1980s by New York transplants Norma Webb and Joe Giglio, Nor-Joe is a wholesale and retail store offering a vast variety of Italian food products like truffles, cheeses, meats, anchovies, olive oil, olives, pasta, antipasti, artichokes, and more. The company sells to just about every Italian restaurant in the area, but luckily for us, the same restaurant-quality meats and cheeses are available to the average diner.

The menu at Nor-Joe is limited largely to Italian-style sandwiches, but the muffuletta is a must. The olive salad on the sandwich is placed in the middle of the sandwich, between equal layers of cheese and meat like prosciutto, Genoa salami, and mortadella ham. Most muffuletta sandwich makers pile the olive salad on last, but I think having it in the middle provides a better balance in flavors. And the olive salad is milder than other versions in the area, which allows other ingredients in the giardiniera to shine through.

Purists will tell you that muffulettas were meant to be eaten cold, but don’t listen to them. Get it heated. The oven melts the cheese and releases the juices of the meat making for a sinful combination of flavors.

Traditional muffulettas are really big sandwiches, so unless you are sharing with friends, you may want to consider ordering just a half muffuletta, which could easily serve two. A whole muffuletta sells for $14 and a half sells for $8. There is no place inside of Nor-Joe’s to eat, but there is a small area outside with chairs and tables.

Don Redman is associate editor of AAA Southern Traveler magazine.

July/August 2016 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Nor-Joe Importing Co.
505 Frisco Ave.
Metairie, La., 70005
(504) 833-9240
No website, but you can find this company on Facebook.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday–Saturday.

If you want to try your hand at making this sandwich at home, find the recipe here.


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