This hearty meal-in-one sandwich is stuffed with a marinated olive salad and savory Italian cold cuts. Before serving, it rests so the garlicky oil in the salad seeps into the bread. The longer the sandwich rests the better it gets, making it ideal for a make-ahead dinner, a picnic, or in New Orleans, a parade route fare.
Rethinking the Origins of the Muffuletta
As with any iconic food, this popular New Orleans sandwich has a number of origin stories–some of them disputed. Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Lupo is often credited with having created the muffuletta sandwich in 1906 at his delicatessen, Central Grocery Co. on Decatur Street in New Orleans. The Perrone family disputes this, instead laying claim to the sandwich for their own Italian deli, Progress Grocery Co., in 1924.
It is understandable that a business would lay claim to a portable meal that is at once briny with olives and marinated vegetables, smoky with cured meats, and creamy with Italian cheese, all together a deeply flavorful and satisfying sum that is greater than its parts.
My theory is different: the sandwich was likely the handiwork of a thrifty Sicilian housewife. She hollowed out the interior of a round boule, known in Sicily as a muffuletta, then stuffed it with a salad made with olives and vegetables preserved in a heady mixture of garlic, olive oil, and either lemon juice or vinegar. She layered on cured meats and cheeses and sealed the entire affair in a square of muslin, which was tied to the end of a pole.
Her husband slung it over his shoulder for a day of backbreaking work in the fields of Sicily. This practice may have immigrated with the Sicilians when they arrived via the Port of New Orleans between 1884 and 1924.
Muffeletta, Muffaletta, or Muffuletta?
The sandwich takes its name from the seeded round Sicilian loaf in which it is assembled. The spelling varies based on regional irregularities in the Sicilian dialect: muffeletta, muffaletta, muffiletta, mufiletta, muffuletta, muffulettu, muffuletu, muffulitteḍḍu, muffulittuni, or muffuletta.
Ta-may-to, ta-mah-to. I am going with muffuletta.
Different Ways to Layer Muffuletta
Bread: Muffuletta loaves—wide, round, flat, and covered in sesame seeds—are difficult to find outside of New Orleans or Sicily. Any good soft but sturdy bread can be used, such as sourdough, ciabatta, or focaccia.
Olive salad: Resist the temptation to elevate the humble ingredients in the salad by using exotic or pricey olives. This recipe calls for kalamata and pimento stuffed green olives, which are readily available at grocery stores. Also, the key is to use an abundance of the olive salad on your sandwich. Really cover the bread and work it in—I recommend about 2 cups olive salad for an 8- to 9-inch loaf.
Cold cuts: A muffuletta is made with three types of cold cuts. Pick one from each category and make sure it’s very thinly sliced for a sandwich that is rich in texture and flavor.
- Cured: prosciutto, coppa, capicola, or speck
- Coarse-ground and cured: sopressa, hot or sweet soppressata, salami, or pepperoni
- Emulsified: bologna or mortadella
Serve It Warm
A room temperature muffuletta is just fine but warmed until just hot enough to melt the cheese is exponentially better. The melted cheese makes for a fine marriage with the olives, garlic, and fruity olive oil. Bake it in a 350°F oven, still wrapped in foil, until the cheese is melted, about 30 minutes.
More Classic Deli Sandwiches
Buy whole olives, not pre-chopped ones. They are more flavorful.
Instead of the celery, carrot, and cauliflower, you can use giardiniera, a pickled vegetable mix that can be found jarred at your local grocery store. Drain it and finely chop the pickles. You’ll need about 1 1/2 cups.
- For the olive salad
- 1 small anchovy fillet, packed in oil
- Extra virgin olive oil, for the marinade
- 1 cup coarsely chopped pitted kalamata olives
- 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pimento stuffed green olives
- 1/2 cup finely diced celery (from 1/2 stalk)
- 1/2 cup finely diced carrot (from 1 small carrot)
- 1/2 cup finely chopped cauliflower florets
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons drained and chopped capers
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- For the sandwich
- 1 (8- to 9-inch) round, seeded muffuletta loaf
- 4 ounces thinly sliced salami
- 4 ounces thinly sliced capicola
- 4 ounces thinly sliced mortadella
- 4 ounces thinly sliced mozzarella cheese
- 4 ounces thinly sliced provolone cheese (not smoked)
Mash the anchovies:
In a small bowl, add the anchovy and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Use a fork to mash the anchovy until dissolved in the oil. I like to use a wooden bowl because I find it easier to mash the anchovy against its textured sides.
Add the vegetables and seasonings:
In a medium bowl, add the mashed anchovy with the oil, kalamata and green olives, celery, carrot, cauliflower, garlic, capers, red wine vinegar, oregano, and black pepper. Stir to combine.
Add olive oil and marinate:
Add enough olive oil to just cover the salad. For the best flavor, let it marinate for at least 1 hour at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.
Stir the salad, taste, and add more black pepper or vinegar if you’d like. It probably does not need more salt because the olives, anchovy, and capers are salty enough.
You will have about 4 cups of olive salad, of which you will use about 2 cups in the sandwich. Think of the leftovers as a gift for tossing with pasta, to spoon over cream cheese for dipping, or to make another muffuletta! It will keep, covered in oil and refrigerated, for at least 1 month.
Prepare the bread:
Slice the loaf of bread in half horizontally and use your hands to hollow out each half by removing the soft bread inside. This will create cavities for the filling. Leave 1/2-inch of soft bread near the crust, taking care not to tear through the crust.
Spread the olive salad:
Stir the salad once more to reincorporate the oil and seasonings, then spread about 2 cups total on the 2 pieces of bread. Use the back of a spoon to really smoosh it down into the bread, covering the entire surface.
Assemble the meats and cheeses:
Layer the salami, capicola, mortadella, mozzarella, and provolone on the bottom piece of bread. Carefully flip the top piece of bread on top.
Wrap it and let it rest:
Tightly wrap the muffuletta with foil and allow it to sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature for the flavors to marry and the oil to soak into the bread.
Remove the foil and cut the muffuletta into 4 wedges and serve.
Tightly wrap any leftover sandwich with plastic wrap or foil and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. The leftover olive salad will keep for 1 month if covered with olive oil in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
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