The muffaletta is just a sandwich. Or is it? That's kind of like calling prosciutto di Parma "just ham." This Sicilian transplant turned Italian-American came to New Orleans with the first group of immigrants to arrive in the city, according to Lidia Bastianich, author of Lidia's Italy in America and host of the popular television show of the same name on PBS.
As with other iconic foods, everyone seems to have their own version, and that's true even with the spelling. Google "muffaletta" and you'll see that this sandwich also goes by "muffuletta." Spelling squabbles aside, though, most versions will have at the very least a combination of Italian meats, cheeses, and an olive salad, served on a soft sesame-seed bread that's also called muffaletta. Bastianich believes it to be a relative of the bread used for pane ca'meusa, a sandwich popular in Palermo, Sicily. Muffaletta bread is tough to find outside of New Orleans, though, so many places outside of the Big Easy make do with focaccia or sesame-seed sub rolls.
What meats and cheeses are used? Generally, you can expect to find ham, capicola, mortadella, salami, provolone, and mozzarella — a laundry list of ingredients that would seem to necessitate a trip to an Italian deli, but is probably easily found in a Boar's Head joint (sorry, anti-Boar's Head elitists). The composition of the olive salad also varies; most versions, however, will have at least a mixture of pitted green and black olives, marinated artichoke hearts, capers, anchovy fillets, dried oregano, and peperoncino flakes tossed together with red-wine vinegar and olive oil. Then, to this, some versions add giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables) and some don't, opting instead for shredded fresh carrot and celery together with roasted red peppers, pickled onions, and pepperoncini. The salad is refrigerated until flavors meld, usually overnight for best results. The point is to make a tangy, salty, mixture with some heat that will soak into the bread and serve as a foil for the rich, fatty meats and cheeses. A good muffaletta will have alternating layers of meats, cheese, and olive salad throughout the sandwich that are constructed rather than just piled on, creating a symphony of flavors with each bite. This sandwich is definitely not svelte fare, but it is delicious.
Who makes the best muffaletta in New Orleans? Even that's up for debate. Bastianich votes for Central Grocery in the French Quarter, where they have been making it since 1906, and which claims to be the "Home of the Original Muffuletta" on their sign outside the store. Bobby Flay, though, paid a visit to Serio's Po'Boys & Deli, where he had a Throwdown with the owners Jack and Mike Serio, whose recipe has been passed down through three generations. If you happen to find yourself in the Big Easy anytime soon, don't leave without trying both versions.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.