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Muffalettas


DonRocks
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I had high hopes [about Lunchbox], but I left disappointed. A muffaletta doesn't translate well to the panini style -- if there was olive spread, it was obliterated by the concentrated flavor of the meats and the cheese, which become just one big glop of indeterminate flavor when hot. The meat that stood out was a stubbornly stringy piece of something that resembled prosciutto, which I had to extricate from the dense, molten hockey puck to chew separately.

I don't think the Muff-a-lotta at Bayou Bakery in Courthouse is pressed, but this is almost exactly my complaint with it: it comes across to me as more of a meat and cheese sandwich - a perfectly good one, but I was absolutely ruined when Jake Parrott brought me back one from Central Grocery in New Orleans (for those who have never seen one, it is a titanically huge sandwich). Honestly, the closest one I've found stylistically to it up here is at The Italian Store (although it pales in comparison).

Are there different styles of Muffalettii? Or is this just a one-off coincidence?

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ETA - And of course, as soon as I asked, I ran to Google and found this tidbit.

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The muffaletta I had at Cochon Butcher, although not a small sandwich, was nowhere near the size of the ones I've seen from Central grocery. Somewhere I read that Donald Link (chef/partner of Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Herbsaint, & others) said that the important things about a good muffaletta are high quality meats, the acidity of the olive salad, & the bread not being too thick. I'll bet you could have a hundred different muffalettas in NO, almost everywhere we went had them on the menu....

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In New Orleans it is not uncommon to see a heated muffaletta. Sometimes that ends up with toasted bread, sometimes it doesn't. The idea is that all that salty meat needs a little heat to release the oils. In news that isn't the least bit shocking, people in the different camps all think theirs is the proper way to serve it, and others are screwing up a potentially good version of the sandwich.

If anything, I think it's a sandwich that hasn't evolved (or been bastardized, depending on your view) as much as other New Orleans staples - heated v. unheated is about as varied as you see. However, you will see the occasional place offer non-traditional versions of a 'muffaletta' where the only familiar elements are the bread and olive salad. I had a half-and-half (fried shrimp/fried oyster) muffaletta once that worked fantastically with the richness of the bread, and the sweetness of the local shrimp really popped around all the salt from the salad and the bivalves. I can still remember that sandwich like it was yesterday and it was probably ten years ago.

The danger with the sandwich is that it can be a total salt bomb. Every element on the traditional muffaletta would be the noticeably salty point if it was on a different sandwich. I think that's why a lot of people don't 'get' it - there are very few truly well prepared versions to be found, and a bad one will leave you bloated, uncomfortable, and wondering why you spent the time/calories. I'd say a Philly Cheesesteak is a similar situation.

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I agree with BoCH that the panini style of muffuletta deemphasizes the olive salad, but sometimes this does make the sandwich more desirable. Central Grocery's is obviously a benchmark sandwich, but I don't always crave that soft seeded bread saturated with olive oil. Heating and pressing makes for a very different sandwich experience, and maybe it should be called something different, but I preferred the version I had from Anthony's Italian Deli in Baton Rouge. Their olive salad is finely chopped, and applied as a thinner spread, but the heating both melted the cheese and released more of the cold cut oils. As a one-piece lunch, the whole thing was more manageably sized, whereas I rarely want more than one or two quarters of a CG muffuletta in one sitting.

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I am a New Orleans girl and I can only say that Central Grocery, for me, is THE standard muffaletta. Everything else, whether in New Orleans or elsewhere, is rated against CG. There's something about the faint nuttiness of the seeds in the bread, the earthy yeastiness of the bread, the brine and slight crunch of the olive salad (contains celery and carrots) and the meat/cheese is just a perfect sandwich. It can be accompanied by an Abita or a Barq's root beer or Barq's creme soda. One fourth is about right for me, making a whole loaf the perfect mid-day repast for 4. Eating at Central Grocery, among sacks of dried breans, canned tomatoes and racks of spices is one of my life's best dining experiences. Second best is walking to the levee, finding a bench and eating while watching the barges and tankers on the Mississippi River.

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