Sandwich Of The Week: Central Grocery's Muffuletta

When I was in high school in the late '70s there was an Italian grocery store on the corner of 13th Street and First Avenue called DiBella Brothers. The shop was dark and dingy as the salamis and cheeses hanging obscured the old fluorescent lights, but the aroma was pure oregano and olive oil. Trying to appeal to the kids from my school, the Italian owners had a special hero: a loaf of fresh crusty sesame seed-studded semolina bread filled with what the DiBellas called their antipasto salad. The salad was composed of the scraps, ends, leftovers, castaways, and cut-offs of all of the other sandwiches — odd-ball chunks of mortadella, genoa salami shreds, cubes of provolone sitting in an olive oil-lubricated detritus of olives, carrots, cauliflower, peppers, and whatever else was swept that day from the cutting board.

The DiBellas sold the shop to Koreans who, despite cleaning and organizing the place without realizing the value of the olive oil patina that was lost, maintained the place for a few more years including the antipasto salad hero.

I dreamt of that sandwich, even after the Koreans closed DiBella Brothers permanently, until the late '80s when I made the first of many pilgrimages to New Orleans. Walking into Central Grocery I immediately got that old DiBella Brothers Italian grocery/museum vibe, as some of the canned Italian delicacies on the shelves looked as if they were stocked when the store opened in 1906. Waiting my turn in the perpetual line, I ordered a whole (also available in halves or quarters for those of lesser appetites than yours truly) muffuletta. Pay attention to the spelling folks. That's double "F" and double "T" with two "U"s. Pronunciation is a whole 'nother matter. Once you master "N'awlins" and "Prawlines" and "P'caans", it's pronounced "MuffuLOTTA".

In lieu of New York Italian submarine/torpedo-shaped hero bread, the Muff has a UFO saucer-like shape to achieve the perfect bread to meat ratio with the round sliced genoa salami, mortadella, ham, and provolone layers that are lovingly stacked on the olive oil-stroked bottom half of the circular bread. The top half then receives several dollops of the proprietary Central Grocery "olive salad."

Chicagoans of Italian descent enjoy their giardiniera, which is olive oil- and vinegar-pickled celery, cauliflower, carrots, peppers, and oregano. The Louisiana Sicilians did them one better by adding the salinity of green and black olives. Everything gets coarsely chopped and soaked in olive oil, making for the ultimate Italian antipasto condiment to place atop the ultimate Italian sandwich.

There are several purveyors of muffulettas in New Orleans, though most do not stand up to Central Grocery. Several will toast or heat the sandwich, which purists such as myself analogize to putting ketchup on your hot dog or mayo on your pastrami.

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