The unique flavor of New Orleans comes from the diversity of its cultures. French-creole influence is the most recognizable, but when you peel back the layers you'll see the medley of contributions from the Spanish, Irish, and Italians.
Few people think of New Orleans when they think of great Italian cuisine, but it turns out New Orleans has a history of Italian immigration going back to the 19th century, and they lay claim to the Hotel Monteleone (started by a Sicilian shoemaker) and the brand Progresso, which began in New Orleans' French Quarter.
Any travelers heading to New Orleans will revel in the Sicilian contributions to the city, especially one of its most decadent and notable inventions: the muffuletta sandwich.
With Genoa salami, ham, provolone and swiss, and olive salad between a Sicilian sesame seed bread, the muffuletta stands as one of the crescent city's must-haves for any visitor.
The sandwich is so original to New Orleans that you would be met with blank stares if you asked for it at a counter in Italy or most parts of the U.S., save for some recipes in New York and Chicago that have been called "flimsy" by some New Orleanians.
But the road to get to this Creole-Italian treat was rough and long and begins with the question: what brought Italians to the Big Easy in the first place?
Invented in 1906 at the Central Grocery
Invented for Sicilian farmers
Loved by President Eisenhower
Named after Sicilian bread
A Search for Green Pastures
Back in 1859, Italy was not just one country. Instead, it was a group of roughly 10 nation-states, each operating independently.
Sicily wasn’t even whole back then - it was the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Italy was about to go through a lot of changes, and it would start with the Two Sicilies.
Giuseppe Garibaldi led an expedition in 1860 to bring the Sicilies together. The movement continued, and by the following year, Italy was one, with the united Sicily under its control.
But Sicilians didn’t like the new arrangement. Italy's rule over Sicily was unmerciful, resulting in poverty, punitive taxation, and policies that disadvantaged the people of Sicily.
Over the decades, Sicily became increasingly mired in poverty and by 1890, many Sicilians left for the New World.
Their path of migration corresponded with the railroads in America at the time. From New York, down to Florida, and through the other Southern States, including Louisiana.
Like it is with all sudden migrations, the immigrants who claim longer residence tend to be suspicious of any newcomers.
There was concern over the Mafia and the Black Hand (an extortionist group) which had their roots in Sicily. And paranoia ended up consuming many Southern folks.
But the immigration wasn't entirely an imposition on plantation owners. In fact, after the end of the Civil War, much of their plantation labor was lost. With Sicilians willing to work on the land, the former aristocrats could maintain their property.
Thus, Sicilians came in droves in search of opportunity. And when thousands of people settled in New Orleans from Palermo, Sicily, the lower French Quarter became known as "Little Palermo."
But some problems arose. . .
Firstly, Southerners were already suspicious of the different-looking folks in their midst. That fear was heightened when a division formed between two conflicting groups of Sicilians
And finally, Sicilians weren't aware of segregation and served African Americans at their stores along with white people.
The latter was a big social norm to break. It put Sicilians on the level of African Americans in the eyes of white Southerners.
Things came to a violent crescendo when New Orleans police chief David Hennessey was murdered by three unidentified men. The city panicked and decided to throw over a hundred Sicilians in prison, with none being found guilty of the crime.
The not-guilty verdict pestered the city enough that they launched one of the largest mass-lynchings in American history.
Italy caught wind of what happened and, with its stronger Navy backing them up, threatened war with the United States. The government avoided irking Italy further by paying reparations to the surviving family members.
No one could say the Sicilian immigrants didn't go through a great deal of strife as they settled in the U.S. But like all of New Orleans, Italians are resilient and their businesses built up sturdy and strong, with many of them standing in the city to this day.
Muffuletta Origins and the Central Grocery
One of the locales that helped Italian culture flourish in New Orleans is the Central Grocery on 923 Decatur St., which faces the famous French Market in the lower French Quarter.
Founded in 1906 by Palermo immigrant Salvatore Lupo, the Central Grocery was a favorite among families and farmers.
Some of the grocer's top selling items were bread, olives, and salami, but the blue-collar fellas who were on the job found it cumbersome to bring all those items with them, nevermind eating it all before getting back to work.
So, as the story goes, Lupo came up with an ingenious idea one bright day in 1906. He would use Sicilian muffuletta bread, combined imported swiss, provolone, salami, ham, and olive salad, and serve it up cold. Perfetto!
Some dispute that Lupo was the inventor, however. There are claims that Sicilians were nomming on the spicy treat over in Sicily, but that Lupo was the first to sell it.
And then there was a restaurant owner in Galveston, Texas who told the Houston Chronicle that his uncle invented the muffuletta in 1901 and served them on a pushcart in New Orleans. Later on, his uncle allegedly provided the Central Grocery with his muffulettas.
The truth might lay somewhere in-between these stories, but for now, Salvatore Lupo is credited with its invention.
And there's no doubt that it tastes great regardless of its inventor.
One thing we know is that starting in 1906, the muffuletta sandwich became incredibly popular. Over the years the Grocery has fulfilled orders from such high-profile folks as President Eisenhower and President de Gaulle of France. And to this day, the sandwich still creates lines outside the door of the Central Grocery.
Even before noon, people line up to get their muffulettas. When it's in your hand, the large, round sandwich is almost bigger than your head and securely wrapped in brown paper.
At the first bite you taste the garlicky, oily olive salad and the touch of creaminess from the provolone. The dense bread takes on the flavor of the famous olive salad as it soaks up the savory oil.
Hell, if that's not worth waiting in line for, what is?
Tradition is key to the success of the Central Grocery. It has stayed true to Salvatore Lupo's original concept and he even avoided becoming a sit-down restaurant despite the muffuletta's popularity.
It's faithfulness to tradition is also helped by the fact that they've kept the business in the family, since Lupo passed it down to his grandson and cousins Frank and Larry Tusa, who run the store to this day.
There is Another. . .
1974 was a rough year for Central Grocery. They were one of several historic French Quarter restaurants that were struggling financially at the time.
They needed a shtick. They needed a reason for people to come through the door.
Then, in 1975, newspapers make the first mention of muffulettas being sold at Central Grocery. They did so while reporting for the first time that Central Grocery claimed to have invented the sandwich in 1906.
Now, far be it from me to claim they never served muffulettas before then. I’m sure it had been popularized around the city and any enterprising Italian restaurant would be foolish to not list one on their menu.
That being said, it’s hard to say their story checks out. Remember Progress Grocery? Well, a 1918 newspaper announced that a charter to create the business had just been granted.
The proprietors? Salvatore Lupo and Gaetano de Majo. The same men who founded Central Grocery.
There’s no mention of a Central Grocery in New Orleans until 1928. Why would they create one business just to jump ship to another? Who knows - mutiny?
With that said, their first print advertisement does claim:
Originators in 1906 of Italian antipasto.
That’s vague, not to mention confusing. Muffulettas aren’t mentioned in connection with Central Grocery until 1975, but could this
Italian antipasto actually be the same dish?
The answers to these mysteries died long ago, sadly. It is fun to speculate, however.
Other Places to Find Great Muffulettas
New Orleans is no stranger to adverse circumstances, but it always knows how to bounce back. In August 2021, Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the city, causing many closures in the aftermath. The Central Grocery was one its casualties, being struck hard enough that it had to close for repairs.
But, in-keeping with the resilience of the city and the family that runs the store, the Central Grocery is pulling through and is slated for a 2022 comeback.
Until then, New Orleans tourists will need to find other places to get their muffuletta fix. But don't worry! There are plenty of places to get a traditional muffuletta in the city.
Not far from the Central Grocery is Cochon Butcher, which produces one of the highest quality muffulettas in the city, using only locally sourced ingredients from farms and grocers. Between the Central Grocery and Cochon Butcher, some muffuletta-lovers are torn between the two.
If you're in the mood for a more upscale experience, The Napoleon House offers a posh flavor to the traditionally blue collar feast. The French Quarter restaurant will have you listening to opera music while you chow down on a warm muffuletta–a switch from the traditionally cold recipe.
A 1940s Creole-Italian restaurant called Liuzza's sits on Bienville St. and serves up a unique twist on the muffuletta, using po-boy bread with the usual fillings. It's an intriguing option for anyone who enjoys the classic and wants to try something a little different.
As blasphemous as it may sound, some places will even accommodate vegetarians. Alberto's Cheese and Wine Bistro, located in the French Market, designs a delicious veggie option with mozzarella, provolone, olive salad, avocado, lettuce, and tomato.
But if you can't make it to the crescent city at all, there's still hope! You can always make it at home. Although the olive salad recipe is closely guarded, the owner of Back in Time Restaurant in Opelousas, Louisiana, divulged her popular recipe.
Whether you want to feel closer to your Sicilian roots, or you want to get a taste of the lustrous culture of New Orleans, or you just want an amazing sandwich, you can enjoy crafting this delizioso delight.
1 muffuletta bread loaf
2 oz capocollo
2 oz Genoa salami
2 oz ham
olive mix (recipe below)
6 oz provolone cheese
Split bread in half lengthwise and hollow out some of the bread to make room for the fillings. In the bottom half, layer the ingredients in order and top with the other half of the bread. Cut into quarters and serve.
Olive Salad Recipe:
½ cup kalamata olives, chopped
⅓ cup of olive oil
¼ cup of pimento stuffed green olives, chopped
¼ cup of cauliflower, finely chopped
¼ cup of carrot, finely chopped
¼ cup of celery, finely chopped
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp of finely chopped parsley
1 tsp minced garlic
½ tsp dried oregano
¼ tsp ground pepper
In a medium-sized bowl, mix all ingredients thoroughly and add to the sandwich.