May 1, 2012

Munching on a muffuletta

I have to be completely honest. 

As much as I’m looking forward to going back to Memphis this weekend for the Beale Street Music Festival, I really hate to miss the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  This year’s Jazz Fest line-up, especially last weekend’s, was especially loaded to suit my musical tastes.  I had toyed with the idea of doing both (Jazz Fest last weekend and Beale this weekend) but gypsy and I had a wedding to go to, and it really wasn’t economically viable anyway.  But I would have loved to have seen Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dr. John and Bruce Springsteen, just to name a few.

OK, what does this have to do with a muffuletta?  And what is a muffuletta anyway?  It may, in my humble opinion, just be the best sandwich in the world.  And for anyone who is visiting New Orleans for the first time (and I know a few who are during Jazz Fest), getting a muffuletta and the best place to get one in the Big Easy is a must-do.    

The story of the muffuletta begins and ends at Central Grocery, 923 Decatur Street, in the heart of the French Quarter.  It may be an unusual place to find an old-school Italian grocery store and deli counter, but it’s a New Orleans institution.  And as the birthplace of the muffuletta, they’ve been serving their signature sandwich since 1906.  In fact, it’s just about the only thing you can get at their deli.  But what else do you need? 

As you can see, the store shelves are crammed with specialty food items, mostly with a Mediterranean flair.  It’s actually a fun place to browse.  But don’t do it during peak lunch hours.  The line of people waiting for their muffulettas can go out the door, and you’ll just be in the way. 

Ordering is easy.  Just walk up to the counter and ask for half a muffuletta or a whole.  A half is plenty for one person, trust me.  Two people can share a whole and probably still have a wedge left over.  I also highly recommend washing it down with a Barq’s root beer, sold in the bottle.  By the way, you know it’s good when the Big Easy’s finest eat there.  Wonder what he’s showing the guy behind the counter on his cell phone? 

There are counters and stools in the back of the grocery, but I prefer to take mine on the go to a bench along the Mississippi River or Jackson Square and make it a picnic.  Or, in case you’re travelling with a sleepy Gypsy, just take it back to your hotel room.     

So, what makes a muffuletta so good?  Well, it’s the only sandwich I’ve ever had that starts with Sicilian sesame bread (think focaccia in style).  In between the loaf you add a medley of Italian meats (salami, Italian ham, capicola, mortadella), provolone and emmentaler cheese and – what I’m sure sets Central Grocery’s version apart from all other who’ve tried to imitate it – their signature olive salad.  You can taste the black and green olives, giardiniera, anchovies, garlic and olive oil all ground up together and marinating the meat and cheese in the sandwich.  Yes, the salt content won’t help your blood pressure, but you won’t care.  It’s just that good. 

Like most people, when Gypsy had her first muffuletta, she was instantly converted.  And she doesn’t even like olives. 

I hope my friends who are visiting New Orleans during Jazz Fest make a visit to Central Grocery.  But don’t go on Sunday; they’re closed.  There are other versions that are pretty good, but none will beat the original (And Frank’s version down the street, well, sucks swamp water.  Just my experience).

In the meantime, I’ll be getting geared up for Beale Street Music Festival and their famous food instead – barbecue.  Like last year, I’m sure several blogs will be coming out of this trip.

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