I won’t be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but I’m thinking of all the gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, king cakes, Sazeracs and Vieux Carres that go down in our most food-centric city. Accompanied by jazz and enthusiastic crowds.
New Orleans is famous for its muffulettas, too, and Fat Tuesday is as good a day as any to enjoy one of these over-the-top sandwiches. They were supposedly “invented” by a local deli owner more than a century ago. He was a Sicilian immigrant, so it’s not surprising that the muffuletta is rooted firmly in that region’s cuisine. The components are the same as a mixed antipasto–cured meats, cheese, olives, bread–and, as the story goes, putting them all together resulted in a speedy lunch for hard-pressed workers.
In Sicily the word muffuletta (also known as muffaletta) refers to a kind of sesame-topped bread. The delicious olive salad that distinguishes the American muffuletta from other sandwiches is reminiscent of the tasty Castelvetrano olives and olive-heavy dishes such as caponata for which Sicily is known.
The American muffuletta consists of several kinds of Italian deli meats–for example, prosciutto, mortadella, capacollo and Genoa salami–layered with sliced provolone or mozzarella, generous quantities of olive salad and lettuce. The olive salad is flexible, depending on what you like. I prefer a salad that is mostly olives, mixed with fresh celery and piquant pickled things like peppadews, peperoncini and pickled garlic.
Eat the muffuletta as is, at room temperature or warmed. Or, heat up some minestrone for a soup-and-sandwich combo.
One of my favorite variations on the meaty muffuletta is a tuna version that, as a partner for the olive salad, is very typical of Sicilian ways with a sandwich.
These over-the-top sandwiches come to us from Sicily, by way of New Orleans. They are loaded with deli meats, cheeses and olive salad.
- 1 cup Mediterranean black or green olives, or a mix pitted and chopped
- 1 stalk celery diced small
- ¼ cup firmly packed chopped peppadews or jarred sweet pickled peppers available at supermarket olive bars
- ¼ cup firmly packed chopped pepperoncini or other hot pickled peppers
- 3 jarred pickled garlic cloves or 1 garlic clove chopped (optional)
- 1 tablespoon well-drained capers
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- 4 muffuletta, Kaiser or other round sandwich rolls split
- Extra virgin olive oil as needed
- 8 ounces thin-sliced deli meats such as ham, prosciutto, mortadella, capacollo and/or salami choose at least two
- 8 ounces provolone or mozzarella cheese
- Baby arugula or shredded lettuce
Make olive salad: Combine olives, celery, peppadews, pepperoncini, pickled garlic cloves, capers and oregano in a medium bowl. Stir well.
Prepare bread: Pull out soft interior of rolls and save to make bread crumbs.
Make sandwiches: Drizzle cut sides of rolls with olive oil. Spoon olive salad into hollows created by removing bread. Layer deli meats, one slice at a time, on bottom halves. Top with cheese and arugula. Close sandwiches.
To serve: Serve immediately or wrap and serve in a few hours. If you prefer warm sandwiches, wrap in foil and heat briefly in an oven or toaster oven.
Tuna Muffulettas: Substitute two cans or jars (10-13 ounces total) good-quality tuna for deli meats and cheese. If tuna is packed in olive oil, use to drizzle sandwich rolls.